Stingrays used to track petty crime

According to court records, on 11 May 2009, Baltimore detectives were in the 1000 block of Webb Court when they saw a man standing in a doorway using a mobile phone that they knew was stolen.

They arrested the man.

Your brain should be screeching to a halt at this point, clamoring for answers to questions like this – how would police just so happen to be in the exact right address at the exact time when a stolen phone is being used?

For that matter, how could they tell from a distance whether a given phone is stolen or not without getting their hands on it first?

If you’ve been following the ultra-secret use of stingray surveillance devices by US law enforcement, you already know the answer.

And now, thanks to an in-depth investigation by USA Today that focused on the use of stingrays in the city of Baltimore, we also know of at least several hundred cases in which stingrays – devices that spoof cell phone towers and trick phones into connecting with them, only to track and locate those phones – have been used to intercept calls and text messages.

StingRay is the brand name of an International Mobile Subscriber Identity locator, also known as an IMSI catcher, that’s targeted and sold to law enforcement.

The term stingray has also come into use in the US as a generic term for these devices.

They cost around $400,000 (about £253,800). The powerful, pricey gadgets are capable of tracking down serious criminals.

But as USA Today’s investigation revealed, Baltimore police are more often than not using the technology to investigate petty crime – think tracking stolen phones and people who forge checks.

Stingray use has been shrouded in secrecy, reinforced by bureaucracy – with documents obtained by the Guardian and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealing that the FBI has forced police departments to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to conceal from judges how they find information obtained by this metadata-capturing technology.

Oddly enough, the FBI recently said that local cops can talk about stingray use, which is the opposite of what its NDA states. At any rate, the US Department of Justice, which oversees the FBI, announced in May that it would be reviewing its stingray policies.

In court, the use of these devices is rarely disclosed because of those NDAs. Defense attorneys and even prosecutors rarely find out that the police use the technology.

The devices are a concern to civil liberties advocates because they scoop up phone information indiscriminately, able as they are to intercept hundreds of phones in surveillance dragnets, the majority of which belong to people innocent of whatever crimes the police happen to be investigating.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, are also targeting the Stingray program in a broader bill called the GPS Act that would require law enforcement agents to obtain warrants before tracking Americans’ locations with stingrays or tapping into cellphones, laptops, or GPS navigation systems.

What little we know about stingray use by law enforcement has leaked out in a handful of cases – for example, various police departments have, at various times, revealed that the technology has been used 250 times in Tallahassee, Florida, and 150 times in Tacoma, Washington.

But Baltimore seems to be stingray-crazy. In April, a detective testified in a court case that police had used a stingray 4300 times.

The enormous number surprised people who follow use of this surveillance technology, and USA Today decided to investigate just what type of cases this has entailed.

Baltimore gave the newspaper a surveillance log that was stripped of identifying information. Sometimes police noted that they used “directional finding equipment,” or that the phone was “located” at a particular address.

Or, again, that they were looking for a phone, saw a guy holding it on a specific street, and knew he was their suspect.

USA Today was able to cross-reference such vague notes with court documents to come up with a list of cases in which the surveillance technology was used.

Even public defenders in the city have been astounded to see the list of cases involved, USA Today’s Brad Heath said in a podcast, given how routine the crimes are and because they’ve had no idea the technology was being used to track their clients.

They're often going after small crimes and not too frequently [those investigations are] resulting in an arrest.

The director of the FBI has said that stingrays are important: it's how they catch pedophiles, terrorists, and kidnappers. But what's clear in Baltimore is it's not a tool saved for special occasions. It's really used for routine police work.

It’s incredibly common, but it’s incredibly secret – an atypical use of an investigative tool, Heath said. Take, for example, police informants: police will, at least, testify that they had help from an informant, even if they don’t reveal his or her identity.

But as one officer told the newspaper, when these cases get to court, the police and prosecutors “try to pretend we were never there.”

The law on whether this is OK is an unsettled area, due in large part to the technology having been kept so secret for so long.

Stay tuned – as facts continue to surface, that will likely change.

Image of Stingray courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

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