As I have reported before, more law enforcement agencies are using cell phone interceptors to obtain evidence of crimes. This is not particularly surprising given how important cell phones are in our lives – they are likely just as important in the lives of bad guys.
What is interesting is the secrecy surrounding them.
In a recent Florida case, reported here, prosecutors gave a defendant 6 months probation rather than 4 years in jail for an armed robbery of a drug dealer, rather than reveal the stingray to the judge and defense attorney.
The Florida Department Of Law Enforcement has spent $3 million buying Stingrays from Harris Communications and has agreements with 11 police departments to loan them out to them.
According to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Florida cops used Stingrays 1800+ times between 2007 and 2014. To me, that is not a huge number of uses. Miami said they used the Stingray in 59 closed cases; Tallahassee said they used it 250 times.
Here is the bigger deal —
In many cases, the cops did not seek a court order to use the devices or asked the court to allow them to use unidentified electronic surveillance. Of the sample requests reviewed in the FOIA request, not one request mentioned the use of a Stingray.
How could a judge make an informed decision about granting approval for the use of a Stingray if (a) they are not even told that they are going to be used and (b) they have no idea how they work. (See this Washington Post article for an explanation of how they work).
Many of the FOIA requests went unanswered, so we really don’t know how widespread the use really is.
Not a single department produced a policy on how the Stingrays could be used or not used.
Given that the use of Stingrays is being actively hidden from judges – to the extent of letting criminals walk rather than tell judges about the Stingrays and given that no Florida law enforcement department produced a policy on use of the Stingrays, that seems to be an indication a problem in the making.
If you are not Familiar with a Stingray, they are not precision devices (think of a bomb rather than a handgun). They snarf up every single communication in range of the device, good guy or bad guy. Phone calls, text messages, numbers called, etc.
In the absence of any rules, how is that data managed? Do they delete data not related to the search warrant? How long do they keep it? Who do they share it with? Under what rules?
This is a bit of a stretch, but could a cop who is in an unhappy relationship, use a Stingray to track his spouse or significant other? In the absence of rules, it certainly would be possible.
And, since you or I would have no idea that it was being used, we would never know.
The good news is that more information is coming out about Stingray use (the Stingray is just one model of a category of devices. Stingrays are made by Harris Communications; other companies make them too), so I suspect this is a problem that will be resolved, hopefully, in the next, say, 3-5 years, but only if we keep the pressure on.
This tech comes out of the creation of what is commonly called a “cell site in a box” for the military so that they can create a cell coverage bubble for troops out in the field. This way they can talk directly to each other without needing to have expensive military radios in a place where no communications exist. These things fit in a small suitcase and can easily be carried by one person.
With the police hiding the use of Stingrays from both judges and the public, the only assumption we can make is that the devices are being misused.
Law enforcement says that they don’t want the crooks to know that they are using the devices. Sorry, except maybe for the corner drug dealer selling dime bags, every crook knows about Stingrays. I even see some for sale online. I would be extremely surprised if organized crime doesn’t own some of them for their own purposes. The cat is out of the bag; give it up.
It is time for the cops to come out of the closet regarding the use of cell site simulators.
Some information for this post came from this article.