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EFF: Government, Law Enforcement, ‘Desperately’ Trying to Hide Use of Stingray Cell Phone Tracking

Harris Corp. Stingray II IMSI catcher (US Patent & Trademark Office)

Harris Corp. Stingray II IMSI catcher (US Patent & Trademark Office)

Law enforcement agencies around the United States are “desperately” trying to keep the public from knowing about their use of secret surveillance towers used to monitor Americans’ cell phones, a leading digital rights group claims.

IMSI catchers, commonly known as Stingrays, mimic cell phone towers, ‘tricking’ smartphones so they connect to the device in order to track the target phone’s location in real-time.

Manufactured by Harris Corporation, a Melbourne, Florida-based multinational, Stingrays are designed to obtain mobile phone numbers of targeted individuals, usually subjects of criminal or intelligence probes, and then mimic the nearest cellular tower so that calls from the targeted device are routed through the Stingray instead.

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a San Francisco-based digital rights group, has warned for years that Stingrays are becoming increasingly pervasive tools utilized by law enforcement organizations from the Justice Department to local police forces to monitor a growing number of cell phones.

“We’ve long worried about the government’s use of [Stingrays, which] masquerade as a legitimate cell phone tower, tricking phones nearby to connect to the device in order to track a phone’s location in real time,” EFF wrote in a January 2 blog post.

“We’re not just worried about how invasive these devices can be, but also that the government has been less than forthright with judges about how and when they use IMSI catchers,” the post continued. “This year, the public learned just how desperately law enforcement wanted to keep details about Stingrays secret. … The results are shocking.”

VentureBeat recently reported on how Stingrays entered the public conversation last year, especially after it was discovered that mysterious interceptor cellular towers were grabbing phone calls across America.

The towers were revealed to Popular Science last August by Les Goldsmith, CEO of ESD America, manufacturer of the super-secure $3,500 CryptoPhone 500. Goldsmith detailed how ESD America discovered that the towers were capable of intercepting phone calls and turning them over to carriers’ networks, which enables the government to snoop on calls or install spyware on mobile phones.

Just how “desperate” are Harris Corporation and law enforcement agencies around the nation to hide their use of Stingrays? According to Techdirt, Harris requires police departments to sign non-disclosure agreements promising not to reference the devices, with the Justice Department instructing local governments and law enforcement agencies to keep details about Stingrays and their use secret.

When the First Amendment Coalition, a free speech and transparency advocacy group, sued the San Diego Police Department last year, demanding more information about how it uses the controversial cell phone tracking technology, the City Attorney’s Office noted that the Justice Department ordered that “information regarding the equipment must not be disclosed because to do so would potentially endanger the lives and physical safety of law enforcement officers and adversely impact criminal and national security investigations.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “law enforcement agencies have been ‘deliberately concealing the use of Stingrays in court documents submitted to judges in criminal investigations.'”

The US Marshals Service has even been caught instructing local police to lie about the use of Stingrays. ArsTechnica reported last June that in one instance, the Marshals Service even physically intervened in an effort to thwart disclosure of information about the controversial technology.

There has been some pushback against the use of Stingrays on the state and local level. After it was revealed that judges in Tacoma, Washington unwittingly authorized Stingray use more than 170 times between 2009 and 2014 because of police non-disclosure, judges began requiring police to say when they plan to use IMSI catchers. Tacoma police must now also promise not to store data collected from individuals who are not under investigation.

EFF reports that the Florida and Massachusetts Supreme Courts have ruled that warrants are necessary for real-time mobile device tracking, and nine states have passed laws requiring warrants for all real-time cell phone tracking.

“As we continue to learn about Stingrays in 2015,” wrote EFF, “we hope more courts and legislatures confront these dangerous tools and work to enact privacy safeguards to protect the data of innocent people who have the bad fortune of being nearby when the police use one.”

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