Assume your cell phone is tapped.
There is growing concern over the use of devices called “Stingrays” by local, state and federal police departments to illegally wiretap all the cell phone calls at biker gatherings. Stingrays are bogus cell phone towers. They are about as large as a small suitcase and they are typically deployed in vans and sedans.
They are manufactured by a single vendor – the Harris Wireless Products Group, a division of the Harris Corporation. Harris WPG advertises itself as “a leading developer of state-of-the-art wireless technology for the Government and Law Enforcement communities.” Stingrays cost about $400,000. Most are purchased either by federal agencies with large budgets or by state and local agencies using federal grants. They should be illegal, as most of the tools and tactics of the global war on motorcycle clubs should be illegal. They are clearly unconstitutional, in that they are used to make a general, warrantless search. And they violate current federal law in that they “interfere with” electronic communications. Most of the information sponged up by Stingray deployments is stored as “intelligence.”
The federal grants that pay for Stingrays are typically described as supporting “terrorism investigations.” Typically, motorcycle clubs are described as “terrorist organizations” and “transnational gangs.”
The use of Stingrays to make criminal cases has never been challenged in court, in part because of clauses in the contracts between Harris WPG and its police customers. In an investigation of Stingray use by police in Northern California, Sacramento television station KXTV obtained a document that read, the “equipment is proprietary and used for surveillance missions…. Its capabilities can only be discussed with sworn law enforcement officers, the military or federal government. This equipment’s capabilities are not for public knowledge and are protected under non-disclosure agreements as well as Title 18 USC 2512.”
In an article last December, USA Today cited multiple instances in which Stingray deployments and so called “cell tower dumps” were used in investigations that had nothing to do with terrorism. For example:
When a ten-year-old girl disappeared in Colorado police gathered data from “at least several thousand people’s phones.” Police then chose “about 500 people who were asked to submit DNA samples.”
A South Carolina Sheriff gathered data from four cell towers to investigate “a rash of car break-ins near Columbia.”
“We were looking at someone who was breaking into a lot of vehicles and was not going to stop,” the Sheriff explained. “So, we had to find out as much information as we could.”
“When Miami-Dade police bought their Stingray device, they told the City Council the agency needed to monitor protesters at an upcoming world trade conference, according to purchasing records.”
The collection of cell phone data is legal in most states: Because most legislators and judges are pathetically clueless there is a broad gap current technology and the laws they regulate technology.
Because of the secrecy with which they are used, the deployment of Stingrays is a difficult story to report. To date, most of the heavy lifting has been done by non-profit organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the First Amendment Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Consequently, most Americans remain unaware that their cell calls and text messages are not private.