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When a Secretive Stingray Cell Phone Tracking “Warrant” Isn’t a Warrant

By Hanni Fakhoury | EFF | March 28, 2013

An Arizona federal court this afternoon will be the battleground over the government’s use of a “Stingray” surveillance device in a closely watched criminal case, United States v. Rigmaiden. And in an important development, new documents revealed after an ACLU of Northern California Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request should leave the government with some explaining to do.

“Stingray” is the brand name of an International Mobile Subscriber Identity locator, or “IMSI catcher.” A Stingray acts as a fake cell-phone tower, small enough to fit in a van, allowing the government to route all network traffic to the fake tower. We’ve warned that Stingrays are dangerous because they have the capability to obtain the contents of electronic and wire communications while necessarily sucking down data on scores of innocent people along the way.

The Fourth Amendment requires searches be “reasonable,” generally meaning they must be accompanied by a warrant. To get a warrant, the government must show there is probable cause to believe the place they want to search will have evidence of a crime. And it means the judge must ensure the warrant is “particular,” or limited to only allow searches into areas where the evidence is most likely to be found. The only way a judge can make these tough decisions is with the government being forthright about what it’s doing.

But when it comes to Stingrays the government has been extremely secretive about its use, withholding documents in FOIA requests, failing to explain (or even understand) the technology to a Texas federal judge and in Rigmaiden, misleading the court about the fact it’s even using one at all.

Daniel David Rigmaiden is charged with a variety of tax and wire fraud crimes. Hoping to pinpoint Rigmaiden’s precise location within an apartment complex, federal agents applied for an order requesting the court to order Verizon to help the agents pinpoint the physical location of a wireless broadband access card and cell phone they believed Rigmaiden was using. The order is clearly directed towards Verizon:

The Court therefore ORDERS, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41(b); Title 18, United States Code, Sections 2703 and 3117; and Title 28, United States Code, Section 1651, that Verizon Wireless, within ten (10) days of the signing of this Order and for a period not to exceed 30 days, unless extended by the Court, shall provide to agents of the FBI data and information obtained from the monitoring of transmissions related to the location of the Target Broadband Access Card/Cellular Telephone…

Ultimately, it turns out the government did not just get Verizon to give it the data. It also used a Stingray device to find Rigmaiden, sucking up loads of other data from other electronic devices in the complex as well, which it deleted.

When Rigmaiden filed a motion to suppress the Stingray evidence as a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the government responded that this order was a search warrant that authorized the government to use the Stingray. Together with the ACLU of Northern California and the ACLU, we filed an amicus brief in support of Rigmaiden, noting that this “order” wasn’t a search warrant because it was directed towards Verizon, made no mention of an IMSI catcher or Stingray and didn’t authorize the government—rather than Verizon—to do anything. Plus to the extent it captured loads of information from other people not suspected of criminal activity it was a “general warrant,” the precise evil the Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent.

The FOIA documents bolster our argument that this isn’t a warrant. The documents are a series of internal emails from DOJ attorneys in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, the district where the order in Rigmaiden’s case was issued. The emails make clear that U.S. Attorneys in the Northern California were using Stingrays but not informing magistrates of what exactly they were doing. And once the judges got wind of what was actually going on, they were none too pleased:

As some of you may be aware, 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 (a box that simulates a cell tower and can be placed inside a van to help pinpoint an individual’s location with some specificity) to locate an individual. It has recently come to my attention that many agents are still using WIT technology in the field although the pen register application does not make that explicit.

While we continue work on a long term fix for this problem, it is important that we are consistent and forthright in our pen register requests to the magistrates…

These emails, combined with the text of the disputed order itself, suggest agents obtained authorization to use a pen register without indicating they also planned to use a Stingray. Either at the time of the application or after the fact, the government attempted to transform that order into a warrant that authorized the use of a Stingray.

Judicial superivison of searches is most needed when the government uses new technologies to embark into new and unknown privacy intrusions. But when the government hides what it’s really doing, it removes this important check on government power. We hope the court sees its been duped, and makes clear to the government that honesty and a warrant are requirements to using a Stingray.

March 29, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Deception, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , | Comments Off on When a Secretive Stingray Cell Phone Tracking “Warrant” Isn’t a Warrant

As Secretive “Stingray” Surveillance Tool Becomes More Pervasive, Questions Over Its Illegality Increase

By Trevor Timm | EFF | February 12, 2013

A few months ago, EFF warned of a secretive new surveillance tool being used by the FBI in cases around the country commonly referred to as a “Stingray.” Recently, more information on the device has come to light and it makes us even more concerned than before.

The device, which acts as a fake cell phone tower, essentially allows the government to electronically search large areas for a particular cell phone’s signal—sucking down data on potentially thousands of innocent people along the way. At the same time, law enforcement has attempted use them while avoiding many of the traditional limitations set forth in the Constitution, like individualized warrants. This is why we called the tool “an unconstitutional, all-you-can-eat data buffet.”

Recently, LA Weekly reported the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) got a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant in 2006 to buy a stingray. The original grant request said it would be used for “regional terrorism investigations.” Instead LAPD has been using it for just about any investigation imaginable.

In just a four month period in 2012, according to documents obtained by the First Amendment Coalition, the LAPD has used the device at least 21 times in “far more routine” criminal investigations. The LA Weekly reported Stingrays “were tapped for more than 13 percent of the 155 ‘cellular phone investigation cases’ that Los Angeles police conducted between June and September last year.” These included burglary, drug and murder cases.

Of course, we’ve seen this pattern over and over and over. The government uses “terrorism” as a catalyst to gain some powerful new surveillance tool or ability, and then turns around and uses it on ordinary citizens, severely infringing on their civil liberties in the process.

Stingrays are particularly odious given they give police dangerous “general warrant” powers, which the founding fathers specifically drafted the Fourth Amendment to prevent. In pre-revolutionary America, British soldiers used “general warrants” as authority to go house-to-house in a particular neighborhood, looking for whatever they please, without specifying an individual or place to be searched.

The Stingray is the digital equivalent of the pre-revolutionary British soldier. It allows police to point a cell phone signal into all the houses in a particular neighborhood, searching for one target while sucking up everyone else’s location along with it. With one search the police could potentially invade countless private residences at once.

In another recent development, the FBI handed over two documents—out of an estimated 25,000 they have on Stingrays—to EPIC as part of the privacy group’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain more information about the use of mysterious devices. As Slate’s Ryan Gallagher reported:

Two heavily redacted sets of files released last month show internal Justice Department guidance that relates to the use of the cell tracking equipment, with repeated references to a crucial section of the Communications Act which outlines how “interference” with communication signals is prohibited.

It’s a small but significant detail. Why? Because it demonstrates that “there are clearly concerns, even within the agency, that the use of Stingray technology might be inconsistent with current regulations,” says EPIC attorney Alan Butler. “I don’t know how the DOJ justifies the use of Stingrays given the limitations of the Communications Act prohibition.”

The documents also suggest that the FBI is loaning out the devices to local police.

On March 28th, the judge overseeing the Rigmaiden case, which we wrote about previously, will hold a hearing on whether evidence obtained using a stringray should be suppressed.  It will be one of the first times a judge rules on the constitutionality of these devices in federal court.

It’s time for local police and federal law enforcement agencies to come clean about the technology and how they are using it, before more ordinary citizens have their constitutional rights violated.

February 12, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , | 1 Comment