Saturday, March 30, 2013

Feds say 'Stingray' use is 'very common practice'

Since Grits had written about Stingray technology following the Yale Law School's conference on Location Tracking and Biometrics, I thought I should point out this item from the Washington Times ("Can you hear me now? Feds admit FBI warrantless cellphone tracking 'very common'," which opened:
FBI investigators for at least five years have routinely used a sophisticated cellphone tracking tool that can pinpoint callers’ locations and listen to their conversations — all without getting a warrant for it, a federal court was told this week.

The use of the “Stingray,” as the tool is called, “is a very common practice” by federal investigators, Justice Department attorneys told the U.S. District Court for Arizona Thursday, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Installed in an unmarked van, Stingray mimics a cellphone tower, so it can pinpoint the precise location of any mobile device in range and intercept conversations and data, said Linda Lye, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California in a blog post about the case.

In a rare public discussion of federal electronic surveillance capabilities and authorities, Justice Department lawyers told the court hearing that, instead of a warrant, the FBI operates Stingray and other cellphone-mimicking technology under the authority of “pen register” orders. These court orders, also known as “tap and trace” orders, are generally issued to allow investigators to collect only so-called “metadata” — like all phone numbers calling to or called from a particular number.

But Stingray collects much more than just phone numbers and also “sweep[s] up the data of innocent people who happen to be nearby,” according to the ACLU filing.

Given the broad nature of the information Stingray collects and its ability to eavesdrop on conversations, many federal judges insisted that they should be told when its use was envisaged under a tap and trace order, the ACLU filing says.
Here's the blog post from ACLU on the topic titled "DOJ emails show feds were less than 'explicit' with judges on cell phone tracking tool."  That exact same lamentation was expressed by federal Magistrate Judge Brian Owsley (Texas Southern District - Houston) at the Yale conference, who said, to an untrained eye, orders for Stingrays look just like those for much-less invasive pen registers. He thought he'd only ever seen two Stingray requests, but in retrospect said he's not completely sure for exactly the reasons described above: They're frequently presented as workaday trap and trace orders. A judge can't oversee activities about which s/he is never told. In Judge Owsley's cases, the federal prosecutors themselves did not understand the technology for which they were requesting an order.

Fort Worth PD owns a Stingray device but little is known about what other state or local agencies in Texas have them. Mostly local agencies purchase them with DOJ or DHS grants. To me it seems like wiretap equipment that they shouldn't possess, at least unless the unnecessary and ill-considered SB 188 passes. That bill, which gives wiretapping authority to the state's largest municipal police departments without DPS as their intermediary, cleared the senate last week. Detectives I've spoken to from the largest departments expect a sharp increase in the number of wiretap warrants requested statewide if SB 188 passes. At that point, you can be sure they'll all want a Stingray device.

MORE: From Simple Justice.


DEWEY said...

"Can they hear me now ????"

Anonymous said...

I would expect the our F.B.I. is not using the Stingray for funsies, and for personal entertainment. We should trust that they are trying to catch criminals for the safety of our lives, and trust that they are honest and using this ability only for the good of mankind.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, just like DHS (Department of Homeland Security) buying billions of rounds of ammunition to exterminate the people of the US in the very near future, starting on the day of admission that the dollar has collapsed. The FBI as employees of the ruling class of politicians, are the enforcers of State oppression, not your friend or protector. Stingray is simply a stateist tool designed to ease their roundup of the killing fields.

rodsmith said...

so 8:53 are you a FBI govt stooge or just retarded?


you must be nuts!

as many times as they have been caught violating the constitution you can say with a straight face


Do the words NO WAY IN HELL sound familiar?

Anonymous said...

any criminal with an ounce of sense will remove the battery when they are out committing crimes. That is what I always do.

Anonymous said...

Stingray does NOT intercept content. That is an absolute lie.

Moreover,the Post article misses the entire point. The issue is not about federal LEOs’ use of invasive technology done in violation of some statute of criminal procedure. There IS NO statutory prohibition to the use of Stingray. Why not, you ask? I’ll tell you why. Because Stingray does not intercept the content of any communication, it does not “triangulate” cell phone signals, and it does not reveal the exact location of a cell phone. And no, it does not collect phone numbers (that’s ridiculous). Used in conjunction with data obtained through other means approved by court order, Stingray helps to narrow an area in which law enforcement will search for a particular subject carrying a cell phone. That’s it. Plain and simple.

So what’s the issue? Well, some of the agencies trained in the use of this device are very good at what they do, and some are not. So when a particular agency is more successful than others at resolving cases, it appears to the non LEO factions-mainly magistrates and prosecutors-that something untoward must be going on, when in reality they’re just pissed off because Agent Kickass didn’t share the technology with them, even though it is not legally required. And we all know in what direction a certain substance rolls. What it comes down to, is that a good number of magistrates believe that anything that can possibly help identify the general location of a suspect should require a court order. That is simply not the law. But a good number of judges being the ACLU type, and a good number of prosecutors wanting to be judges, we get law-by-committee. We also get the Criminal Chief throwing Agent Kickass and his colleagues under the bus. So when the magistrates and U.S. Attorneys Office of the Northern District of California hold a meeting to determine what type of order will be required for a device that does not require an order, you tell me who is bending the law?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:25 wrote: "Stingray does NOT intercept content. That is an absolute lie."

You are misinformed. The Stingray acts as a fake cell tower diverting content through the police box. There are various models ranging from $60K to $175K and though lower end models can't intercept content, the higher end ones do. The DOJ's electronic surveillance manual specifically mentions that these devices can intercept content and require that functionality to be turned off without judicial approval. But it's just a matter of flipping a switch.

Here's the link to the manual (pdf). See p. 41 where it says, "Digital analyzers/cell site simulators/triggerfish and similar devices may be capable of intercepting the contents of communications and, therefore, such devices must be configured to disable the interception function, unless interceptions have been authorized by a Title III order." "Triggerfish" is a previous version of the Stingray, but the cell-site simulator technology is functionally similar.

You are also misinformed that it does not collect phone numbers or identifying information of phones. In fact, the company has created a Stingray equipped vest that police can wear, for example, to walk through a protest and identify all the cell phone customers who were there. I'm sure you're accurately describing how you've used the tech, but you're under-informed as to its full functionality. There has been some excellent Wall Street Journal coverage of them I'd encourage you to read for more background.

Finally, I don't know about the judges in California, but the ones in Texas who are demanding warrants are Bush appointees and not likely to be ACLU sympathizers.