Administration Helping Bury Documents Related To Local Law Enforcement Use Of Cell Tower Spoofers

from the widening-the-gap-between-'us'-and-'them' dept

The recent story about the US Marshals Service stepping in to prevent the ACLU from obtaining documents related to the Sarasota (FL) Police Department’s ownership and use of cell tower spoofers is apparently not an isolated instance. According to an AP report, the US government is actively inserting itself into the “discussion” by ensuring no one gets to talk about the controversial devices.

The Obama administration has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods, The Associated Press has learned.

Citing security reasons, the U.S. has intervened in routine state public records cases and criminal trials regarding use of the technology. This has resulted in police departments withholding materials or heavily censoring documents in rare instances when they disclose any about the purchase and use of such powerful surveillance equipment.

Beyond the obvious negative impact on the much-vaunted “transparency” this administration claims to personify, there’s also the new disturbing level of overreach — the US government actively interfering with state-level Freedom of Information requests. In addition to the restrictive non-disclosure agreements that law enforcement agencies must sign when purchasing Stingray devices (and these agencies’ general reluctance to share surveillance equipment info with the public), the government itself is taking an active role in erecting a wall between the public and its public servants.

Interviews, court records and public-records requests show the Obama administration is asking agencies to withhold common information about the equipment, such as how the technology is used and how to turn it on. That pushback has come in the form of FBI affidavits and consultation in local criminal cases.

Harris, the largest manufacturer of cell tower spoofers, specifically directs law enforcement to consult with the FBI during the purchase process, as well as before deploying the devices. The company claims this is all above board because it’s “regulated” by its status as a government contractor. That might mean something if it wasn’t so closely aligned with these government agencies’ desire to keep the technology secret.

And, of course, the government has used its go-to defenses to justify its secrecy efforts. Above, it mentioned “security.” A supporting affadavit filed by an FBI agent in a Freedom of Information lawsuit adds another:

A court case challenging the public release of information from the Tucson Police Department includes an affidavit from an FBI special agent, Bradley Morrison, who said the disclosure would “result in the FBI’s inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity because through public disclosures, this technology has been rendered essentially useless for future investigations.”

Morrison said revealing any information about the technology would violate a federal homeland security law about information-sharing and arms-control laws…

Once you strip out all the panicky trappings, the FBI is basically asserting that it, and the law enforcement agencies it’s speaking in support of, should be allowed to do what they like with zero accountability. These agencies want to have the ability to collect massive amounts of data without being slowed by warrant requests or minimization processes.

These exposure fears are unfounded, and those using them to justify withholding information know this. This secrecy has been used to seal returned warrants and court orders on closed investigations, giving lie to the claim that these agencies are concerned about damaging current and future investigatons. And, realistically, the only way terrorists or criminals are going to be able to completely avoid Stingray surveillance is to not use or carry cell phones, something that seems highly unlikely. For this to be any use to them, they would have to know in advance where it’s being deployed and when.

The real reason behind the collaborative burial of information is the agencies’ desire to do what they want without limitations or paper trails. This sort of behavior should be an indicator of a law enforcement agency that’s gone rogue, rather than an all-too-common collaborative effort between local and national government agencies.

Filed Under: , , , , , , , ,
Companies: harris

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Administration Helping Bury Documents Related To Local Law Enforcement Use Of Cell Tower Spoofers”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

“…the disclosure would “result in the FBI?s inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity because through public disclosures, this technology has been rendered essentially useless for future investigations.””

Oopsie. So by extension we might also say:

..disclosures of internet-monitoring would “result in the FBI?s inability to protect the public from terrorism and other criminal activity because through public disclosures, this internet has been rendered essentially useless for future investigations.”

No point snooping on the internet then since it’s similarly “useless for future investigations”.

And let me get this straight: “revealing any information about the technology would violate a federal homeland security law about information-sharing and arms-control laws?”: Would he like to be specific which ‘federal homeland security’ he’s talking about or is that too secret to talk about too? But he is trying to insist that a commercially available electronic device falls under ‘arms control’ legislation because of what? Are not arms control laws about allowing arms to fall into the hands of the ‘enemies of the United States’? So how soon before common-or-garden criminals are labelled enemy combatants? Slipper slope getting slippier.

Anonymous Coward says:

Everyone knows police can wiretap phone calls, yet a warrant is still required in order for it to take place. The public also knows about Stingray tracking devices, so there’s no reason why a warrant shouldn’t be required for use of these devices too.

A warrant requires a specific person, place, and thing to be specified for a search and seizure. There’s no way to square the warrant requirements with scooping up everyone’s communications in a 5 square mile radius. There’s nothing particular or specific about the way Stingray’s operate.

So it basically boils down to Stingray searches failing to meet the legal requirements of a warrant, as outlined in the 4th Amendment.

That’s law enforcement refuses to issue any warrants for Stingray use. Such a warrant would be challenged in court, and the White House, DOJ, FBI, and local law enforcement all know a Stingray search will be ruled Unconstitutional due to it’s bulk collection of message content and metadata for everyone in a 5 mile square radius.

They’re using the phrase “safety and security” to hide the illegal and unconstitutional use of their general warrant technology. Harris Corp lawyers also interpreted US law, and they also know Stingray use would be found illegal. Which is why they require everyone to sign a nondisclosure agreement, saying no warrants will be used.

This is all crystal clear when you take all into account everything that’s been happening. I’m sure the EFF and ACLU also know Stingrays won’t hold us against the 4th Amendment in a court of law.

The White House, DOJ and FBI are terrified of a warrant being issued, and the Stingray being challenged in court. That’s why there’s so much coaching going. Especially about using parallel construction techniques after the suspect has been located, to avoid Stingrays ending up in court.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Nicely said, and what I was thinking.

Question, since I don’t understand, which is stronger, an NDA or some or all of the following?

1. The Constitution
2. Federal Procedure Rules
3. State Procedure Rules
4. HLS “Laws” (I am so unaware that enforcement agencies could ‘make’ law)
5. A subpoena
6. A warrant should they actually make some effort
7. Something I am missing

zip says:

Re: Re:

Maybe many of us have concluded that resistance to this corrupt police state that we live in is futile. Electing new politicians is pointless. And let’s face it – we could not have elected a more pro-transparency, pro-Constitution, anti-police-state President than we elected. That he turned out to be even worse on these important issues than the former president he criticised so harshly … should teach us all a big lesson.

Matthew Cline (profile) says:

Intervening in criminal trials

Citing security reasons, the U.S. has intervened in routine state public records cases and criminal trials regarding use of the technology.

The linked article didn’t have much details on this. Did a defense attorney attempt to challenge the use of the cell tower spoofer, but to do so would need details about the spoofer, and the DA refused to hand over the info on grounds of national security?

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Think it is secret? Wrong.

This is my estimation of what the cellphone sniffers do. It is based on reasoning, both on the basis of what is technically likely, combined with their rabid determination to keep its capabilities secret, which means that (in every case!) the worst truth is true.


1) The sniffer can be set up anywhere.
2) Every cell phone in the area will connect to the sniffer, in preference to any other cell tower.
3) They can record the metadata of every phone call.
4) They can determine the phone type.
5) They can break the encryption capabilities of the cellphone and record voice for every call.
6) They can deploy exploits to a phone from a library containing exploits for every device type. This allows them to…
7) They can inspect anything on the connected cellphone including but not limited to: Contact lists, apps, pictures, instant messages, voice mail, call history and encryption keys.
8) They can turn the cellphone into a passive listening device.
9) They can prevent you from turning the cell phone off.
10) They can have the phone transmit its GPS location.
11) They can triangulate the physical location of a non-GPS phone to within 20 feet or so.


1) They use the sniffer at any time without warrants.
2) It gives them enormous amounts of evidence to launder.
3) Wherever it is set up, they always capture all cell phones in the vicinity, regardless of cause or suspicion.
4) All phones so connected are permanently exploited, even after they return to normal cell service towers.

Assume this is true because it explains why they are so concerned about leaks. Then you won’t be surprised when you find out the real truth.

David says:

Same old, same old

“Your honor, we aren’t as effective when staying with the constitution.”

Guess what: things like the Fourth Amendment have been written exactly in order to limit the effectiveness of the government invading the public’s privacy.

It’s like fishermen complaining that they cannot guarantee the nation’s continued sustenance if they are not allowed to fish with dynamite, the most effective and thorough way of fishing imaginable.

bgmcb (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think your looking for this
The project Spidey []
Goes live notifier

Using data from

From Slashdot (Bob9113)

Anonymous Coward says:

I think its about time that the public started to track the movements and record the communications of everyone known to be a part of the federal government or its agencies. We have the technology and we have a damn good reason for needing to know what these legalised criminals are up to, 24/7. It would also go far towards letting the spies know exactly what it feels like to be spied upon by people who do not have their best interests at heart.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...