Senator Asks FCC To Explain Its Involvement In The Proliferation Of Stingray Devices

from the let-the-finger-pointing-begin! dept

Despite the feds’ best efforts to keep IMSI catchers (Stingray devices, colloquially and almost certainly to the dismay of manufacturer Harris Corporation, as they head to becoming the kleenex of surveillance tech) a secret, there’s still enough information leaking out around the edges of the FBI’s non-disclosure agreements to provoke public discussion.

The discussion appears to have reached the top of the food chain. Sen. Bill Nelson — following the lead of Senators Leahy and Grassley — has sent a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler asking the following:

[image credit: Julian Sanchez]

Dear Chairman Wheeler:

On Feb. 23, The Washington Post published a front-page article “Secrecy around Police Surveillance Equipment Proves a Case’s Undoing.” That article indicated that the Tallahassee Police Department and other law enforcement agencies around the country have been using a device called the StingRay to collect cell phone call information.

That article and previous others concerning the device reveal the StingRay was certified for use by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), contingent upon the conditions that StingRay’s manufacturer sell these devices solely to federal, state, and local public safety and law enforcement; and that state and local law enforcement agencies must coordinate in advance with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) before acquiring or using this equipment. According to the article, these devices now have been purchased by 48 law enforcement agencies in 20 states and the District of Columbia and used in hundreds of cases.

Yep, the devices are pretty much everywhere and no one wants to talk about them. When the US Marshals Service isn’t stepping in to physically remove Stingray-related documents, local law enforcement agencies are disguising their use of these devices behind vague warrants and subpoenas.

What Sen. Nelson wants to know is what the FCC knows about Stingrays.

What information the FCC may have had about the rationale behind the restrictions placed on the certification of the StingRay, and whether similar restrictions have been put in place for other devices;

Whether the FCC inquired about what oversight may be in place to make sure that use of the devices complied with the manufacturer’s representations to the FCC at the time of certification; and

A status report on the activities of the “task force” you previously formed to look at questions surrounding the use of the StingRay and similar devices.

What we DO know so far about the interplay of Harris, the FBI and the FCC is that the first two parties have been less than forthright with the third. Harris managed to push its devices past the FCC by implying they would only be used in emergencies — even though it was already clear at the point it made that statement that law enforcement agencies were frequently deploying them in non-emergency situations.

The FBI has performed its own obfuscation, implying in a letter to law enforcement agencies that the FCC required the signing off a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI. The FCC has since denied this, and obtained documents indicate it’s the FBI that wants to control the flow of information regarding Stingrays, not the other way around.

I imagine the FCC would be compliant with this request, considering its past relationship with the FBI and Harris. But it can expect to run into significant resistance from the DOJ, which still believes that the long-exposed technology should still be afforded NSA-level secrecy — especially when answers to Sen. Nelson’s questions will likely expose its less-than-honest dealings with the FCC.

Sen. Nelson deserves some extra praise for being willing to put himself in an awkward situation. As the ACLU’s Chris Soghoian notes, the senator has picked a very public fight with his second biggest campaign contributor.

Somebody needs to provide some answers and, while it’s really the FBI that should be talking at this point, the FCC’s take on this — and its dealings with the FBI — should be enlightening. The FBI’s insistence on secrecy is not only screwing defendants during the discovery process, but it’s also harming local law enforcement itself, which has shown an alarming willingness to drop cases/charges rather than reveal the use of Stingray devices.

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Companies: harris corp.

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Comments on “Senator Asks FCC To Explain Its Involvement In The Proliferation Of Stingray Devices”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Citizen journalism

There are a number of software programs that claim to detect the presence of IMSI-catchers. While not authoritative, the widespread use and support of these apps offers the chance to document the rise and potential abuse of new law enforcement technology.

Anonymous Coward says:

Only a phone call away...

In August I emailed Sen Nelson’s office on another matter. I got a call back from his top aide and we talked for a few minutes and he was able to resolve my concerns. During the talk I found out his aide had just left military intelligence…
Thanks to the articles here I asked him about the stingrays. He had never heard of them so I did my best to explain what they were and how they worked. We chatted for about a half hour and by the time we were done I had given him a list of the articles on TechDirt and some other headlines that popped up elsewhere. He seemed to be very interested and promised to bring it to the senators attention.
No I wasn’t the one responsible but don’t let anyone ever say your voice won’t be heard. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who inquired about stingray use.

anonymous says:


By reading about the stingray’s capability I wonder if my calls could be monitored by this device. Just last week I was in Southwest Florida where stingrays are widely used, my calls to two separate credit card payment centers were disrupted just at the moment I was giving my payment information.I had sufficient bars on my phone. Then, although both of the phones I tried using were charged the cell service became jammed. This interuption occurred again yesterday . While attempting to pay an insurance bill by phone. There was the same sounding disruption just when I was entering my info.I called an Insurance rep for help but heard my voice echoing. I asked him to call me back. When he called me , the caller ID showed the number 212.337.4790. When I asked him where he was calling from he said Ct. He called the 212 number and got a dial tone. He said he had no idea what number it was. Today it happened again . In addition although I have encrypted my phone, the WiFi button and bluetooth mysteriously always turn on a minute or more after i turn them off. I have to repeatedly go to settings to turn them off. I have a password and a pin on my phone.
Since my xhusband has a history of hiring detectives could they be using an stingray?
How much battery time is available to a stingray to work?
Can the stingray be used to mimick calls from a contact list?
Could it be used to record your voice.
A friend let me listen to a voice message that I left but my sentences had been spliced and replaced with words or phrases I had said in other conversations that I had had with other people.
How could that be done?

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