Stingray cell surveillance can record conversations, bug phones

Stingrays, also known as “cell site simulators” or “IMSI catchers,” are invasive cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information. When used to track a suspect’s cell phone, they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby.
The federal government has been fighting hard for years to hide details about its use of so-called stingray surveillance technology from the public. The controversial devices are also capable of recording numbers for a mobile phone’s incoming and outgoing calls, as well as intercepting the content of voice and text communications.
Local law enforcement agencies have used the equipment numerous times in secret without obtaining a warrant and have even deceived courts about the nature of the technology to obtain orders to use it. The devices, generally the size of a suitcase, work by emitting a stronger signal than nearby towers in order to force a phone or mobile device to connect to them instead of a legitimate tower. Once a mobile device connects, the phone reveals its unique device ID, after which the stingray releases the device so that it can connect to a legitimate cell tower, allowing data and voice calls to go through. Once a phone’s general location is determined, investigators can use a handheld device that provides more pinpoint precision in the location of a phone or mobile device—this includes being able to pinpoint an exact office or apartment where the device is being used. During the period that devices are connected to a stingray, disruption can occur for anyone in the vicinity of the technology.   Another controversial capability involves the ability to block mobile communications, such as in war zones to prevent attackers from using a mobile phone to trigger an explosive, or during political demonstrations to prevent activists from organizing by mobile phone.  When using a stingray to identify the specific phone or mobile device a suspect is using, “collection should be limited to device identifiers,” the DoJ document notes. “It should not encompass dialed digits, as that would entail surveillance on the calling activity of all persons in the vicinity of the subject.”
Concerns about the use of stingrays is growing.  In order to use the devices, agents are instructed to obtain a pen register/trap and trace court order.  Law enforcement can use the devices without a court order under “exceptional” circumstances.
The increased attention prompted the Justice Department this month to release a new federal policy on the use of stingrays, requiring a warrant any time federal investigators use them. The rules, however, don’t apply to local police departments, which are among the most prolific users of the technology and have been using them for years without obtaining a warrant.
New legislation proposed in Illinois makes this state the most recent to attempt a crackdown on the use of so-called “stingray” devices. Four states have already passed laws requiring police to get a warrant before using stingrays.

briservStingray cell surveillance can record conversations, bug phones