The Washington, D.C. Police Department is the latest law enforcement agency to deploy Stingray — a device which allows police to track suspects through their cellphone.
But there are two major problems. It’s routinely used on suspects without a warrant, and it collects and stores data on everyone within range.
Get familiar with Stingray, because it’s already getting familiar with a lot about you.
Stingray is an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (ISMI) catcher.
About the size of a lunchbox, it intercepts signals traveling between cellphones and cellphone towers by tricking phones into thinking it is a stronger tower.
ISMI catchers are so precise, that they can track a phone’s location to a specific room in a house.
The problem is it is not programmed to find a specific phone.
Stingray captures signals and data from every phone in its vicinity and then stores it for later use.
Police claim they delete records not related to the suspect, but that same claim has proven to be false with nearly every surveillance device ever used.
In fact, police rarely bother getting a warrant before using Stingray.
They argue that since you are transmitting your personal information using a third party, in this case the phone company, you should not expect privacy.
They rely on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1979 ruling in Smith v. Maryland, which declared the plaintiff, who had been caught by police using subpoenaed records from the phone company, had waived his constitutional right to privacy when he told the phone company to which number he wished to be connected, and he should have expected the company would keep a record of his calls.
Searching for a suspect in that manner is known, legally, as a “pen register.”
It often means police will ask a phone company to search for a specific number.
Courts often agree, because the police’s role in the search is limited and they themselves do not review every phone number in the company’s custody.
But police often neglect to tell the court they plan to use Stingray, which gives them direct access to innocent citizens’ phones – something the 1979 ruling does not address.
The Fourth Amendment itself does not support the use of Stingray. The amendment clearly states:
“the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Capturing citizens private phone data, which is often used in the privacy of a home, constitutes a search. Capturing it through the warrantless use of Stingray clearly does not meet the standard of “probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
While countries like Germany bans its use completely, Stingray is deployed against Americans without warrants more often than you think.
San Bernardino County, California, for example, used Stingray to search phones without a warrant more than 300 times between 2014 and 2015.
At least 68 other local law enforcement agencies use the device, with or without a requirement that they first get a warrant.
Police in Tallahassee, Florida used Stingray to conduct door-to-door searches of homes for a suspect.
Officers holding the device literally walked door-to-door and looked in windows, using it to search inside homes for the suspect’s phone, regardless of whether they had any reason to believe he was in that particular house.
That’s clearly a search of a home, and without probable cause that the suspect was in that specific home.
Even worse, Tallahassee police admit they used the device at least 200 times between 2007 and 2010.
And that’s the danger of Stingray.
But the most disturbing aspect of Stingray is that the personal phone records of thousands of innocent people are captured and stored by police, and your constitutional right to privacy depends entirely on a verbal claim that such records are destroyed – however, that claim often turns out to be false.