Department of Justice Says it’s Time to Reevaluate the Stingray Phone-Tracking System

New report says agency to take a look into cell phone snooping.

Nam Y. Huh/AP/Corbis

The Department of Justice is going to release new information about how the government uses mobile surveillance devices, known as “Stingrays,” “Hailstorms” or “dirtboxes.” The federal government will start conducting an in-depth review of how law-enforcement agencies deploy the devices, which mimic cell phone towers in order to intercept cell phone data, writes Devlin Barrett for the Wall Street Journal.

Despite being used for over a decade, not much is known about how law-enforcement uses the Stingray. In fact, the Federal Bureau of Investigation started seeking warrants authorizing them to use the devices only a few months ago, despite using the technology for years, writes Barrett. Stingray devices are often attached to airplanes and flown over large populated areas in order to track criminals cell phones — potentially scooping up data from thousands of innocent people at the same time. In recent years, the devices have trickled into the hands of local police departments, sparking a controversy over whether the technology is being abused.

Law-enforcement agencies have been slow to release information on the Stingray’s use to judges, lawmakers and the public.

“We know it’s got to come out,” one law-enforcement official tells Barrett. “At some point, it becomes more harmful to try to keep it secret than to acknowledge it. We just want to acknowledge it carefully and slowly, so we don’t lose what is a very effective tool.”

The devices were first designed to track terrorists and spies overseas, but have become commonly used by police officers to hunt all kinds of criminals from kidnappers to thieves. Secrecy around the devices and how they work are tight — the FBI requires local law-enforcement to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they can use the technology, which blocks them from giving away details of the device in court or in public. In fact, police are required to drop charges against suspects in cases where they may have to reveal information about the Stingray, writes Barrett:

“Officials said they don’t want to reveal so much that it gives criminals clues about how to defeat the devices. Law-enforcement officials also don’t want to reveal information that would give new ammunition to defense lawyers in prosecutions where warrants weren’t used, according to officials involved in the discussions.”

Although the secrecy around the device is ironclad, the rules governing its use are unclear. The FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and Drug Enforcement Agency all have different rules for using the Stingray, writes Barrett. In addition, FBI doesn’t provide guidelines on how the Stingray can and can’t be used unless asked. But while the devices are effective in tracking criminals, privacy advocates argue that scanning the data of innocent people amounts to an unwarranted ID check on the populace at large.

Local law enforcement has been using the device vigorously, prompting Justice Department officials and phone companies to question whether police are abusing an emergency request system by flooding phone companies with requests for customer cellphone data without a court order. Last month, a Baltimore police official told a judge overseeing a murder case that the department used Stingray devices upwards of 4,300 times in the last eight years, writes Barrett. In that case, the judge allowed it.

h/t Ars Technica

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.