How the Police Spy on Cellphones Secretly (and Perhaps Illegally)
Stingray devices, also known as cell-site simulators and IMSI-catchers, have been used broadly by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
When the technology, initially developed for national security cases and international use, is used by state and local agencies, it is done so using stringent non-disclosure and covert agreements with federal agencies such as the FBI.
The devices operate by imitating the signals of cellphone towers and compelling, by virtue of a stronger signal due to their proximity to the targeted cellphone, a connection between the cellphone and their device rather than the cellphone and the cellphone tower.
In the software security realm, the strategy behind IMSI-catchers is known as a Man-in-the-Middle attack.
Once the devices capture the cellphone’s signal, law enforcement can:
- Deny service to the cellphone through a DoS attack
- Extract location information from the phone
- Intercept calls
- Intercept text messages
- Prompt phone to transmit certain information
- Record the contents of outgoing and incoming information
- Redirect or delay communication attempts
The Electronic Frontier Foundation provides a pretty comprehensive FAQ about Stingray devices and how they function.
While the technical understanding of the devices and their functionality is common public knowledge, what is less known is who uses them, which cases they are used in and how often they use such devices.
Recent investigative efforts by the ACLU, The Intercept, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have provided details about how law enforcement agencies are using the technology in the course of carrying out their duties.
Who Uses Stingray Devices?
The ACLU has a handy tracking website that details, which states and which agencies at various levels of governance use Stingray devices.
The tracking map reveals that more than 20 have documented cellphone interceptors.
The ACLU’s Florida Stingray FOIA Documents
In 2014, the ACLU submitted records requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to multiple Florida law enforcement agencies regarding their use and purchase of Stingray devices.
In 2015, the ACLU published the documents they received through the FOIA request and you can read an extensive report about the ACLU’s findings here.
The ACLU’s commentary highlights the centrality of secrecy to the whole environment surrounding the procurement and deployment of Stingray devices.
The ACLU notes:
The secrecy is not just from the public, but often from judges who are supposed to ensure that police are not abusing their authority. Partly relying on that secrecy, police have been getting authorization to use Stingrays based on the low standard of “relevance,” not a warrant based on probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment.
The Intercept Leaks
The Harris Corporation is the manufacturer of the Stingray commercial device and is the company responsible for the commercial cell-site simulator that has become synonymous with IMSI-catchers.
Harris Corporation Stingray Device manuals have been leaked to the Intercept.
Of particular note in The Intercept’s excellent work to review these devices, is the fact that military style weapons are being given to U.S. police agencies all over the country.
The sheer range of devices provided by the U.S. military to local and state law enforcement agencies is mind boggling.
The Secret Catalog of devices can be found here.
Khullani Abdullahi is currently writing a book about the stories that lie in the conflict points between the modern FBI, artificial intelligence, surveillance technologies, civil liberties, the movement and bodies of civilians, former spies and subcontractors she is calling “Citizen Spies” and the emerging Electronic Panopticon (E-Panopticon).
By using the philosophy of French philosopher, Michel Foucault, emergent technologies, and the law, she hopes to build a new way of understanding the political coercion and control of modern-day political, actual and virtual bodies.
Send a DM on Twitter at @Khullani_