Why Are They Tracking All Of Our Cellphones?

Fighting for personal privacy, New York legislators are calling out a secret deal between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and police departments that provided military-grade IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers – called “Stingrays” – to snoop on citizens’ cell phone locations – without a warrant.

Warrantless search is protected by the  Fourth constitutional amendment yet the federal government has failed to outlaw the use of this illicit surveillance-state tool:

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“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.”

StingRay use has been on the up and up throughout local and federal law enforcement with barely any – if any – protectionary oversight. States are taking issue with that problem. In California, the San Bernardino Police Department used its StingRay 300 times without a warrant in just over a year.

A shoebox-sized Stingray (the brand sold by Harris Corporation) collects information from cell phones by mimicking a wireless carrier cell tower and forcing all nearby WiFi cellular data devices to connect to it. The box gives police the power not only to collect your cell phone’s location as well as your incoming and outgoing calls but it can also intercept the content of voice conservations and text messages.

Law officers have abandoned law to go after what they call order – without your prior knowledge or consent and with no regard to the Law of the Land.

Seven years ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) submitted an amicus brief in United States v. Rigmaiden involving Fourth Amendment rights in the home and using cell phones which compared underhanded police evidence collection to the door-to-door searches with no probable cause or even suspicion of wrongdoing conducted by Pre-Revolutionary War British soldiers.

In Rigmaiden, the government asked a federal judge in Northern California to order Verizon to assist in locating the defendant (dubbed the “Hacker”), a suspected participant in a tax fraud scheme. After the judge granted an order directing Verizon to provide the location information on an Aircard thought to belong to the defendant, the government claimed this authorization somehow included using its own Stingray.

The culprit was caught based on the cell records gleaned by the Stingray – but personal data of every other innocent cell phone user within range of the eavesdropping device was also collected.

Richard Tynan, a technology expert with Privacy International, observed that “there really isn’t any place for innocent people to hide from a device such as this.”

The U.S. government was developing this surveillance technology around 1995. The first civilian law enforcement agency to use it illegally on civilians occurred in 2007, followed by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in 2008.

Today, Stingray-type devices are used by local and state law enforcement personnel across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. The suite of StingRay devices can be mounted in vehicles, on airplanes, helicopters, and drones. Hand-carried versions are sold under the trade name KingFish.

The New York Civil Liberties Union came out in support of A.8055, a bill introduced by Assemblymember Sean Ryan in 2015 that required law enforcement to obtain a court-issued warrant before using stingray surveillance technology.

In 2017, The Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals reached a landmark pro-privacy decision that reversed the lower decision of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and overturned the conviction of a robbery and sexual assault suspect. The ruling said that using Stingrays “to locate a person through his or her cellphone invades the person’s actual, legitimate and reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her location information and is a search.”

A year later, in June 2018, the United States Supreme Court issued another landmark  ruling in favor of citizen privacy. In Carpenter v. US, police had tracked the plaintiff’s cell site location data for several months. The decision banned the use of historical location information by law enforcement.

A second  2018 case in Massachusetts Commonwealth v. Almonor expanded the federal ruling to prohibit real time location blanket surveillance by police.

This past May 2019, Michigan legislators introduced a bill to ban warrantless searches by Stingray tech and the collection of electronic data stored by service providers. On May 22, GOP Senator Pete Lucido introduced Senate Bill 341 titled The Electronic Information and Data Privacy Act. This law has three requirements:

  1. A law enforcement agency must obtain a search warrant to access certain electronic information or data
  2. To prescribe the manner in which certain electronic information or data may be accessed or used
  3. To require notification to the owner or user of the electronic information, data, or electronic device that the electronic information, data, or electronic device has been accessed; and to provide remedies

As more people find out about the sneaky conspiracists at the FBI promoting illegal StingRay technology to the nation’s police, look for an increased in legislation crafted to protect personal privacy, to maintain public trust in law enforcement, and to hold the criminal justice system accountable for upholding the U.S. Constitution.