Silent sting

To find criminal suspects, federal agents use a device that tracks everyone else too

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rebecca@sfbg.com

If the FBI is trying to track down a suspect in your neighborhood, investigators could sweep up information from your mobile device just because you happen to be nearby.

It's been going on for years with little public notice or attention.

Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act request shed new light on a surveillance device known as a Stingray that allows law enforcement to automatically collect cell phone data from potentially hundreds of subscribers in a given area — even when the vast majority of those affected have nothing to do with the criminal investigation at hand.

The documents came in response to an FOIA request from the Bay Guardian and the Northern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Stingray is a brand name; the devices might also be known as a Triggerfish, a digital analyzer, a cell site emulator, or an IMSI catcher, the latter being a technical term describing the gadget's ability to detect International Mobile Subscriber Identities. It essentially behaves like cell phone tower, putting out a strong signal that tricks mobile devices into connecting automatically.

If there are 200 cell phone customers in an area where it's being deployed, all of their phones will automatically connect to the device.

Once cell phones are talking to the Stingray, the device scoops up digital information and uses it to help agents ferret out their target. Some Stingrays have the capability to capture actual content — texts or telephone conversations — while others act like eyes and ears that can guide police to the precise geographic location of a targeted suspect, even within a couple meters.

And it doesn't even require a warrant.

"You can operate it without having to involve the cell phone providers at all," Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, told us. His organization helped a journalist obtain records about the Los Angeles Police Department's use of Stingrays.

"The service providers, while they don't stand as a major barrier, tend to insist on police having some kind of judicial authorization," Scheer said. "It has been an important check on police use of these technologies."

MANY AGENTS USING IT

The FBI initially refused to provide the documents, but after the ACLU filed suit, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California finally released some information, including a particularly juicy set of internal emails documenting federal agents' use of these devices.

In one of the emails, Criminal Division Chief Miranda Kane wrote: "Our office has been working closely with the magistrate judges in an effort to address their collective concerns regarding whether a pen register is sufficient to authorize the use of law enforcement's WIT technology ... to locate an individual."

("WIT technology" is described as a box that simulates a cell tower and can be placed inside a van to help pinpoint an individual's location with some specificity.")

Kane added: "Many agents are still using [this] technology in the field although the pen register application does not make that explicit." In a clarifying email sent later on the same thread, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle Waldinger noted: "Just to be super clear, the agents may not use the term 'WIT' but rather may be using the term ... 'Stingray.'"

Kane's reference to a "pen register application" describes a request for court approval to use an investigative tactic that can trace the outgoing numbers dialed from a particular phone. While Stingrays can potentially sweep in hundreds of cell phone customers' information, pen-register wiretaps focus narrowly on the digits being punched in by one individual.

Comments

because I am doing nothing wrong AND that this may help to apprehend criminals and terrorists.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2013 @ 6:21 am

In fact, if the police receive reports of a criminal in the area, I think they should go further. Let's say it's an apartment complex. I wouldn't mind if they cordoned off the area completely and did a door to door search of everyone, including full body cavity searches if necessary. I have nothing to hide, so I have nothing to fear. And in the process they'll catch they criminal more efficiently. A report of a criminal should never be taken lightly.

Posted by anon on Apr. 10, 2013 @ 6:37 am
Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2013 @ 8:48 am

I think they should use drones to randomly look into people's windows to catch criminals. I remember reading in a book about a society where police helicopters go around randomly looking into windows, and everybody had a two-way "telescreen" in their apartment that the government could use to monitor the household for crime. I remember thinking "what a brilliant idea!" I bet that kind of society would have very little crime. Those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2013 @ 6:41 am

I can't believe what I am reading here!I can't believe the comments either,they must be joking right??Ok with body cavity searches,thats a joke right?Either these folks are very nieve and actually trust a capitalist government to ,''do the right thing,haha,now thats a joke really,'' or they have had a silverspoon in their lifes forever....Our gov. is one of the most corrupt ones now-a-days since our ancestors split England,,which is exactly why they split England,,,,Which is y their collective wisdom knew what to write in the Constittution..I further realized how screwy our country had become,whilest watching a game show called r u smarter then a 5th grader..They had a principle on as 1 of the contestance,a principle mind u,of grades k-8,,,when it came to answerring question regarding North,South,East,or West,I believe the question was,which state is further North then tennesse?,Maine,,,,,,,Alabama,,,,or Texas,,,This principle answerred Texas,,,r u kidding me??!!!!!When the host asked her,y,,would u say Texas,,she replied I have no idea where N,S.E.W, is,,,I use Garmin,,,,,,,r u kidding me,,,This woman is in charge of our childrens education,what r they teaching you guys now-a-days?I believe they r teaching ,''follow the leader,blindly,,,question no-one or nothing./..What if your so-called theory,,i have done nothing to be fearful of arrest backfires..What if that official searching you falsely claims he found a joint in your pocket,and claims you are a drug addict..outright lies,,,which has and does happen every single day in America,,,then what??Or that drone gets enter'd the wrong address and shots and kills a family of 3????Then what??We are all humans,inperfect humans,we alll make mistakes,,thats how we learn,,,,but my privacy,my creditbilty,my good name being destroyed over a ,''mistake'',,,,is no-ones right to take away from me!!!!!Paita

Posted by Guest on Apr. 10, 2013 @ 8:09 am

I hope the people above are joking. Well, maybe not. San Francisco is full of liberals who hate the Constitution.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 14, 2013 @ 10:28 pm

Liberals here hate the constitution, America and cops.

But they love criminals and the homeless.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 7:23 am

About what property of the camera do the liberals whine, that possessive apostrophe on camera threw me off.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 8:07 am

rather than this "Guest" who merely noted that it is not unusual for liberals to dislike cops and the constitution.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 9:14 am

acts. Or helped apprehend the perps.

Today's tragedy puts this debate in perspective, I believe.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 15, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

I don't mind, I have nothing to hide. I am still free to write the paper, put out a sign, speak my mind. Yes they can't take a sneak peek, I have nothing hide.

Yes if the government got word of a plan attack or any other kind of trouble. I would expect them to turn off the phones.

We live in a day where rules and laws should be in place to sneak a peek, with computers, cell phones and other devices. We need to.

Posted by Garrett on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

as "liberal" with the attitudes you express proves how fucked our society has become.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

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