Reuters / Robert Galbraith
Not only are local police departments across the United States increasingly relying on so-called StingRay devices to conduct surveillance on cell phone users, but cops are being forced to keep quiet about the operations, new documents reveal.
Recent reports have indicated that law enforcement agencies from coast to coast have been turning to IMSI-catcher devices, like the StingRay sold by Florida’s Harris Corporation, to trick ordinary mobile phones into communicating device-specific International Mobile Subscriber Identity information to phony cell towers — a tactic that takes the approximate geolocation data of all the devices within range and records it for investigators. Recently, the Tallahassee Police Department in the state of Florida was found to have used their own “cell site simulator” at least 200 times to collect phone data without once asking for a warrant during a three-year span, and details about the use of StingRays by other law enforcement groups continue to emerge on the regular.
But while the merits of whether or not law enforcement officers should legally be able to collect sensitive cell information by masquerading as telecommunication towers remains ripe for debate — and continues for certain to be an issue of contention among civil liberties advocates — newly released documents raise even further questions about how cops use StingRays and other IMSI-catchers to gather great chunks of data concerning the whereabouts of not just criminal suspects, but seemingly anyone in a given vicinity that happens to have a phone in their hand or pocket.
Relentless pleas for details about use of IMSI-catchers by the Tacoma Police Department in Washington state paid off recently when the investigative news site Muckrock obtained a six-page document after following up for several months on a Freedom of Information Act request placed with the TPD.
According to the document, police in Tacoma were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation before they could begin conducting surveillance on cell users with a Harris-sold StingRay.
Although the majority of the December 2012 document is redacted, a paragraph from FBI special agent Laura Laughlin to Police of Chief Donald Ramsdell reveals that Tacoma officers were told they couldn’t discuss their use of IMSI-catchers with anyone.
“We have been advised by Harris Corporation of the Tacoma Police Department’s request for acquisition of certain wireless collection equipment/technology manufactured by Harris Corporation,” the FBI letter reads in part.“Consistent with the conditions on the equipment authorization granted to Harris Corporation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), state and local law enforcement agencies must coordinate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to complete this non-disclosure agreement prior to the acquisition and use of the equipment/technology authorized by the FCC authorization.”
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