FBI, Stingray and Secret Cellphone Surveillance

by Matt Klassen on May 10, 2016

news-police-stingray-600x279For several months now we’ve known of the existence of the controversial Stingray phone surveillance system, a covert piece of law enforcement technology that ostensibly tricks mobile devices into thinking it is a legitimate cellular tower, thus routing all surrounding mobile traffic to it instead of towards networks operated by wireless carriers.

The problem has been, of course, that throwing down a veritable dragnet over mobile communication that indiscriminately collects information on anyone and everyone is a warrantless violation of the privacy not only of the suspects in question, but of the entire general public as well.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is keenly aware of the legally nebulous standing of such technology, for if it ever came to light exactly how the technology was used, where it was used, and what information was collected, my guess is that it would be found in violation of a host of laws.

But now a document from the FBI to a local American police force has taken this controversy to a whole new level, as we have evidence that the FBI knows Stingray is legally unjustifiable, and that the evidence it collects cannot be used in court, not only because it’s illegally gathered, but because in presenting the evidence law enforcement would have to disclose details about Stingray itself.

A recently disclosed document shows the FBI telling a local police force that the covert surveillance technology is so secret that whatever evidence is collected through its use has to be recreated through entirely separate means to have it be admissible in court.

“Information obtained through use of the equipment is for lead purposes only,” FBI special agent James E. Finch wrote to Chief Bill Citty of the Oklahoma City Police Department, “and may not be used as primary evidence in any affidavits, hearings or trials.” [emphasis added]

“This equipment provides general location information about a cellular device, and your agency understands it is required to use additional and independent information about a cellular device, and your agency understands it is required to use additional independent investigative means and methods… that would be admissible at trial to corroborate information concerning the location of the target obtained through this equipment.”

Simply put, in order to maintain the secrecy of Stingray and uphold its legally nebulous status, neither the FBI nor local police can admit its existence by presenting its evidence in court. Given that such surveillance is neither warranted nor upheld by the courts, any evidence gathered by Stingray will need to be independently corroborated by entirely separate investigative means.

While the practice of “parallel construction” –whereby investigators cover up the unwarranted collection of information by finding another way to attribute it, thus never allowing the original lead to come to light—is really nothing new, this is perhaps the most blatant case of attempted misdirection of the entire judiciary.

I would also like to point out that it is these sorts of shady surveillance practices that fuel things like the ongoing mobile encryption debate. Sure we recognize that law enforcement needs tools to keep us safe, but legal end-arounds and nebulous “don’t ask, don’t tell” deployments of dangerous technologies are not the ways to earn the public’s trust.

Due to non-disclosure agreements, it is unclear how many law enforcement agencies across Canada and the United States currently have access to such Stingray surveillance technology.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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