by Jake Anderson
Originally intended to assist federal investigators in terrorism cases, a brand new and super secret technology has recently raised quite a few eyebrows. This new StingRay product is able to pick up an entire area’s cell phone data and pinpoint exact locations of the cell user. The entire practice is currently considered completely legal and does not even require a warrant.
This super secretive technology can be purchased by law enforcement upon meeting certain conditions. In order to buy the device, the law enforcement officials must sign a contract with a very specific national security nondisclosure agreement. In other words, law enforcement promises not to talk about the technology at all. These agreements are overseen by the FBI and the United States marketer of the technology, the Harris Corporation. If information about the technology were to reach mainstream, the two worry it wouldn’t take long before criminals and terrorists would find a way to circumvent it.
What we do know about this upcoming technology is that it can allegedly track our smart phones. Police officials are able to use this surveillance to locate cell phones belonging to missing persons or even terrorists. Right now this technology is called StingRay, KingFish, or cell site simulator. Rumors explain that it is a small size rectangular device that allegedly acts as a cell tower and intercepts cell phone signals. The technology acts as a fake cell tower and allows the user to pinpoint an exact location of a wireless cell phone by obtaining information from the phones such as emails, text messages, and cell-site information. When the suspect goes to make a cell phone call the technology fools the phone into sending the signal to the police rather than the wireless carrier.
This nondisclosure agreement raises some serious privacy concerns. Not too long ago the Supreme Court ruled that federal investigators are restricted from using GPS tracking devices without first obtaining a legal warrant. Yet now the new StingRay technology appears to be even more imposing, powerful, and threatening. When the fake cell phone tower tracks a suspects phone, it additionally extracts data from thousands of other cell phones in the area. Just being in the same neighborhood as a suspect in a crime is a huge threat to one’s cell phone privacy. Essentially every single person’s phone is being checked in with the government if they are using this technology nearby.
Additionally, there are questions as to whether the government is withholding information from court judges. The nondisclosure agreement also contains a very unsettling clause that forces law enforcement to immediately notify the FBI if any citizen processes a Freedom of Information request so that they can attempt to prevent the request from going through.
The question has yet to be brought up in court so currently no warrant is needed to use this technology. What was originally intended to locate terror suspects has quickly become a tool for the nation’s failed War on Drugs. According to Peter Scheer, the director of the First Amendment Center and strong opponent of StingRay, in 2012 every single investigation that used the technology involved drugs or other felonies but not one involved terrorism.
This slippery slope seems to be leading us all down a dangerous path where we are offered a lessened expectation of privacy just for choosing to carry and use a cell phone. The future will tell what the courts decide is more important, the protection of technology or a citizen’s privacy rights.