Washington DC Metro Police Also Have A Stingray And Have Been Using It To Do Normal Police Work

from the so-many-Stingrays,-so-few-terrorists-captured dept

The facts are in, thanks to Vice Media and Jason Leopold. Washington, DC police have a Stingray cell tower spoofer and have been using it for several years. The Metropolitan Police Department was an early adopter, but moving too fast cost it about five years of use.

Back in 2003, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in Washington, DC was awarded a $260,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to purchase surveillance technology called Stingray — a contraption the size of a suitcase that simulates a cell phone tower and intercepts mobile phone calls and text messages.

The rationale behind the DHS grant to MPD and other law enforcement agencies was to help them secure new anti-terrorism technology from private corporations. But the grant fell a little short, because the MPD couldn’t come up with the extra several thousands dollars it needed to train officers how to use and maintain Stingray — so the device sat unused in an “Electronic Surveillance Unit equipment vault” at the department for more than five years.

In 2008, the Stingray was revived and upgraded and has apparently been in use ever since. Of course, it’s no longer terrorism that justifies its usage, but rather good, old-fashioned drug dealing and other vanilla criminal activity, as one memo points out.

“The procurement of this equipment will increase the number of MPD arrests for fugitives, drug traffickers, and violent offenders (robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, Homicide), while reducing the time it takes to locate dangerous offenders that need to be removed from the streets of DC.”

No doubt the news that bad guys are being speedily apprehended will make up for all the dropped calls and blocked data experienced by public servants employed in the metro area. They’ll also be pleased to know that all sorts of unfiltered information about their phone calls, location, etc. was hoovered up along with the suspects’.

Not that this doesn’t affect the “little people,” who are just as likely to wonder why their cell phones aren’t picking up a signal and are just as likely to be irritated that the local PD is scooping up a bunch of unrelated data in its search for bad guys, but this now affects the “real people” of DC — policymakers and higher-ups whose complaints actually manage to find worthy ears quite frequently.

If the MPD is driving around DC with Stingray devices, it is likely capturing information about the locations and movements of members of Congress, cabinet members, federal law enforcement agents, and Homeland Security personnel, consular staff, and foreign dignitaries, and all of the other people who congregate in the District…. If cell phone calls of congressional staff, White House aides, or even members of Congress are being disconnected, dropped, or blocked by MPD Stingrays, that’s a particularly sensitive and troublesome problem.

Of course, this has been ongoing for half a decade now, and if no one’s complaining about it yet, it’s because it hasn’t been noticed or it’s because too many of those officials mentioned are more than willing to sacrifice their privacy (along with everyone else’s) for small gains in law enforcement efficiency — even more so if the spectre of international terrorism is raised (which it was, initially), despite everyone knowing that the real targets would be normal, no-panic-needed criminal activities (as is almost always the case).

Will these newly-freed documents prompt a bit more activity from the Beltway? Well, the cheery outlook says, “anything’s possible,” which is as much an admission of defeat as it is a rallying cry. The more realistic viewpoint sees that multiple documents have been uncovered over the past few years with little more than a few, very localized reactions being observed. It will probably take more than the off-chance of being swept up in a surveillance dragnet to convince those in charge to take a second look at law enforcement tools and capabilities. In fact, many of them helped agencies (via legislation) like the DHS and FBI sell the courts on the idea that nearly everything related to human communication in this day and age carries with it “no expectation of privacy.”

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Comments on “Washington DC Metro Police Also Have A Stingray And Have Been Using It To Do Normal Police Work”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'It coud never happen to me, I'm a senator!'

I imagine a large reason for the lack of outcry is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, those in power still cling to the idea that such spying would never be applied to their communications.

After all, they’re senators/congresscritters/federal agents, and spying is for the little people, not those in charge, so clearly their communications would never be scooped up and pored over by bored/curious cops.

I imagine they’ll only start caring about such indiscriminate spying when some cop is a little too careless, and lets slip that yes in fact, those in powerful positions are having their communications intercepted/recorded/redirected by the system just the same as any other person’s.

shyra says:

…and if no one’s [politicians] complaining about it yet, it’s because it hasn’t been noticed or it’s because too many of those officials mentioned are more than willing to sacrifice their privacy (along with everyone else’s…)

Nah… dropped calls and lost data streams are just the everyday, normal way our cell phones function. Why would they think there was anything untoward going on? I mean, I swear, the cell companies MUST believe it’s a feature, not a bug, right?! 😉

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

unless you are a spook who is justifiably paranoid, WHO would think they are a victim of a stingray intercept when just regular cell phone usage can have all sorts of problematic issues that would be silly to jump to the conclusion of ‘oh, i must be being stingray’ed’…
no, there are quite enough ‘natural’ dropped calls, crappy reception, interference, etc, that any REAL spying with stingrays/etc would be lost in the -literal- noise…

Anonymous Coward says:

I wonder if anyone in the Congress has realized that the metadata collection they seem to be OK with can and probably is be used to determine who on the Hill is talking to who, and thus is influencing legislation.

And I’d be surprised if someone isn’t paying their IT dept for CDR records for internal calls, then using those to track who is talking to who among the members and their staff.

After all, voting against NSA supported legislation is, well, you know…

Ninja (profile) says:

I can live with drug dealers enjoying freedom for longer than they do with this stingray. As long as, you know, I can always enjoy my right to privacy and against warrantless wiretapping. Who knows how many people got in a mess with the cops because they said something on a context that exceeds the phone call and it triggered raids or further privacy violations?

Also, here’s hoping the drug dealers go free if it was warrantless. The moment courts start dropping solid evidence because it was obtained without warrants these morons will think twice before bypassing the proper channels.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Wait a second...

True, but that doesn’t change the fact that the statement is totally without meaning.

It isn’t. Tell me if these sentences all have the same meaning:

They got a grant to spend some money.
They got a grant to buy some equipment.
They got a grant to buy some counter-terrorism equipment.
They got a grant to buy some counter-terrorism equipment from private corporations.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Wait a second...

OK, let’s take a step back here, because I’m trying to say something a bit different than what you’re hearing me say. The fuller quote is

The rationale behind the DHS grant to MPD and other law enforcement agencies was to help them secure new anti-terrorism technology from private corporations.

If the purpose of the grant is what is stated here — to help them buy new stuff (terrorism-related or not doesn’t affect the logical problem), then the statement is without meaning. The purpose of every grant in the history of grants is to allow the purchase of new stuff (or services).

The actual purpose of the grant (why is it so important to buy the new stuff) isn’t actually stated in the quote. Although I think that it’s hinted at by the “from private corporations” clause: this is nothing but a money grab for private corporations.

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