Police Use “StingRay” Device to Monitor Cellphones

By:  Warren Mass
Police Use “StingRay” Device to Monitor Cellphones

Using a device called StingRay, police across America are able to intercept calls and texts from cell phones — often without a warrant.

The StingRay simulates a cell tower, prompting cellphones within its range to identify themselves and transmit their signals to the police instead of the nearest mobile network operator’s tower.

No one seems to know exactly how many local, state, or federal law enforcement agencies are using Stingray technology, how extensive the monitoring is, or even what information the devices are capable of capturing, such as the contents of phone conversations and text messages.

This information dearth is disturbing to all Americans who value their right to privacy, as protected by the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The amendment also prohibits the issuance of search warrants without “probable cause.” Yet there are indications that StingRay is commonly being used by police not only without probable cause, but also without a warrant.

Investigations by several news organizations revealed that the most likely reason that police do not want to obtain a warrant or reveal that they are using Stingray is that the device’s manufacturer, Harris Corporation of Melbourne, Florida, requires police departments who buy their equipment to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Under normal operating procedure, when police suspect that an individual is engaged in criminal activity, they must show “probable cause” of such activity to a judge in order to obtain a search warrant. This would be the requirement for police to obtain authorization to tap a suspect’s landline phone.

While the same constitutional requirements should obviously apply in order for police to be able to listen to cellphone calls, technology such as StingRay makes it easier for law enforcement (ironically) to circumvent the law. And because the Harris Corporation is so adamant about protecting every detail of Stingray from public scrutiny, it does not want to share any information about the device — not even with the judges responsible for issuing warrants!

Sacramento News 10 (ABC affiliate, KXTV) recently submitted public records requests to every major law enforcement agency in Northern California to find out which departments are using StingRay technology. The station received information from several agencies, but “none would discuss how StingRays work, or even admit they have them,” reported News 10.

However, by piecing together brief statements from police officials and studying departmental purchase orders, News 10 was able to determine that StingRay was being used in Northern California. 

Information culled from a 2012 grant application submitted to the Bay Area Urban Area Shield Initiative (UASI), indicated that the San Jose Police Department requested feedback from several other agencies that already use StingRays. The application noted:

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Photo: AP Images

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