Think your cell phone location is private? Think again! Now there is the stingray, a surveillance device used by the government that can trick suspects' cell phones into revealing their locations. This stingray is not a fish. It is a "cell site simulator," and it can mimic cell phone towers in order to force cell phones in the area to transmit "pings" back to the stingray devices, enabling law enforcement to track a suspect's phone and pinpoint its location. The stingray casts a large net. In addition to trapping the data of the target user, cell phone metadata belonging to all innocent users who happen to be linked to the same cell phone tower at the same time is also acquired. That can be hundreds of cell phones. Even yours.
The increasing use of the devices has largely been kept secret from the court system and the public. In 2014, police revealed they had used such devices at least 200 additional times in Florida since 2010 without disclosing it to the courts or obtaining a warrant. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed multiple requests for law enforcement records concerning the use of the cell phone tracking devices. State and federal cops have resisted judicial requests for information about the use of stingrays, refusing to turn over information or heavily censoring it. In June 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union published information from court regarding the extensive use of these devices by local Florida police. After this publication, the United States Marshals Service seized the local agency’s surveillance records in a bid to keep the records from coming out in court. The ACLU estimates that 66 agencies in 24 states own the controversial device, but that number may be low because of the secrecy that clouds the device and its use. The ACLU records show that local law enforcement agencies in Arizona possess the stingray technology.
The secrecy about the technology comes in large part from the Harris Corporation, which developed the technology and has a commercial interest in keeping it hush hush. In some cases, police have refused to disclose information to the courts citing non-disclosure agreements signed with the company. The FBI defended the non-disclosure agreements, saying that information about the technology could allow adversaries to circumvent it. The ACLU has countered that information about unwarranted government surveillance should not be kept secret from the public or concealed from judges.
So far, courts have been complacent and allowed law enforcement leeway to use the stingray technology without a warrant. But the case of United States v. Raymond Lambis out of Manhattan is believed to be one of the first judicial rebukes involving the new technology. The court held that the defendant’s rights were violated when the Drug Enforcement Administration used the device without a warrant in order to find the defendant’s Washington Heights apartment. “Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device,” the court declared. The ACLU has applauded the decision. “This opinion strongly reinforces the strength of our constitutional privacy rights in the digital age,” ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler said in a statement. It is unclear whether the government will appeal to the Second Circuit.
Whatever the case, we are bound to hear more about this controversial technology as the legal process grinds on.
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DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is not intended to give legal advice. It is provided for informational purposes only. You should consult an attorney if you have any questions.