How Law enforcement Uses an Invasive, Unreliable Surveillance Tool
By Kate Klonick
From Ferguson to Senate hearings, the news of local police arming themselves with federal-grade equipment—tanks, riot gear, M16 rifles—has captivated everyone from civil libertarians to lawmakers. But in the national debate surrounding police militarization, the most effective weapons may have been overlooked: Beyond arming themselves like the federal government, local police are also spying on you like the federal government—using sophisticated surveillance technology without warrants.
One of the tools making it possible for Chief Wiggum to gather all your deets is known colloquially as a Stingray, a portable gadget about the size of a box of doughnuts. They’re also known as “cell-site simulators,” because, well, that’s exactly what they do: A Stingray mimics a cellphone tower and forces all nearby mobile phones or devices to connect to it. Every phone that connects to the Stingray reports its number, GPS location, and the numbers of all outgoing calls and texts. That’s every location and outgoing call and text log of every phone within a certain radius—up to several kilometers—of the Stingray, and that’s all without a warrant.
It’s probably not a huge surprise to most people in America today that the federal government has incredible surveillance technology that it uses occasionally on its own citizens. (Hi, NSA!) But polling shows that only 27 percent of people think that this technology is focused on them, and even if not, half of Americans surveyed say that there might be a margin of federal surveillance they’re willing to endure in the name of homeland security or fighting terrorism.
Stingray Tracking Devices: Who’s Got Them?
EPIC v. FBI – Stingray / Cell Site Simulator
Wikipedia – Stingray phone tracker
The StingRay is an IMSI-catcher (International Mobile Subscriber Identity), a controversial cellular phone surveillance device, manufactured by the Harris Corporation. Initially developed for the military and intelligence community, the StingRay and similar Harris devices are in widespread use by local and state law enforcement agencies across the United States. Stingray has also become a generic name to describe these kinds of devices.