FBI: Hurricane Katrina Made It Clear We Just Don't Have Enough Stingray Devices

from the because-weather dept

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government stepped up to assure the nation that as horrifically damaging as the storm was, we would all come out of it OK.*

*Offer does not apply to affected residents of New Orleans.

President Bush let us know that FEMA head “Brownie” (born Michael D. Brown) was doing a “heckuva job” botching the government’s response. The New Orleans Police Department worked hard to secure critical infrastructure, going so far as to show up in civilian clothes, armed with unapproved weapons. And the FBI, which sent its people to assist in search and rescue operations and to help curtail post-storm looting, made sure an unprecedented tragedy wouldn’t go to waste.

MuckRock’s Shawn Musgrave points out that, hidden among the 5,000 heavily redacted pages it received in April in “response” to its FBI-Stingray query, the agency’s Katrina experience somehow made Stingray acquisition a priority.

A year later, as part of post-Katrina review, the FBI’s WITT requested funding for additional equipment from Harris Corporation, which manufactures the StingRay line of cell phone trackers. Two drafts of the same memo (draft 1) and (draft 2) from July 2006, each with competing redactions, together weave a partial glimpse of WITT’s justification.


“In the summer of 2005, the U.S. Gulf Coast bore the brunt of several hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina which severely degraded the capabilities of the [redacted],” the memo reads in part. Subsequent, heavily redacted sentences suggest that the storm crippled the FBI’s capacity to conduct certain types of cell phone tracking operations via equipment on-hand at the time of landfall.

Further details are redacted, but it’s clear the diminished capabilities pushed IMSI catchers to the front of the acquisition queue. The accompanying purchase order was designated “priority.” Previous purchases had only been declared “routine.”

The redactions make it impossible to determine why exactly the agency felt the acquisition of more cellphone-tracking technology was a must post-Katrina. Perhaps the agency needed hardware upgrades to existing equipment that functioned in a less-than-ideal manner when local cell infrastructure suffered damage. Maybe it lent some devices to the New Orleans PD and was having trouble getting them back. Maybe it just wanted more IMSI catchers. No matter the stated reason, it can safely be assumed that post-act of God requisition processes receive less scrutiny than those made during times of relative peace and safety. Terrorism and drug dealing may have been off the table in terms of justifications, but any good government agency knows “national disaster” is spelled “O-P-P-O-R-T-U-N-I-T-Y.” The FBI is no exception.

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Comments on “FBI: Hurricane Katrina Made It Clear We Just Don't Have Enough Stingray Devices”

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Sheogorath (profile) says:

The New Orleans Police Department worked hard to secure critical infrastructure, going so far as to show up in civilian clothes, armed with unapproved weapons.
You know, it wouldn’t have surprised me if that had instead led to the greatest amount of LEOs killed at one time by civilians as people sought to protect themselves from these ‘looters’.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If I were sitting on a jury I would acquit every person charged with killing a police officer in that situation.

Officers of the law must always be clearly distinguishable from regular citizens. I you want to dress up like a heavily armed thug instead and get your bollocks shot off because a scared and confused citizen thought you meant harm, I got your sign right here!

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Cop's Rights

The only time I went to New Orleans was the year the police were on strike (whatever year that was). The National Guard had 4-6 man posts every other block,but even that did not stop petty crime (we left our wallets at home but something rectangular was in my back pocket, which some young person decided to try for, and lost). That public servants think they can hold up a community, or nation, is absolutely despicable.

Anonymous Coward says:

I wonder how many times these Stingrays, which were paid for by a grant designed to fight terrorism, were successfully used in a case of terrorism. I wonder what percentage of stingray use involved cases with no terrorism charges. I wonder what the consequences are for not using a
U.S. Govt grant based on the terms of that grant.

Oh, I forgot, it’s nothing because nobody in the government gives a fuck about accountability and integrity!

David says:

Re: Re:

I wonder how many times these Stingrays, which were paid for by a grant designed to fight terrorism, were successfully used in a case of terrorism.

Do you also complain when the publicly financed NASA develops technology that’s useful for more than just space travel?

IMSI catchers on petty crime are the teflon pan of law enforcement.

Now of course most uses of teflon pans are not straightforward breaches of constitutional guarantees.

But then you argued misappropriation of funds because the IMSI catchers proved to be useful for more than just catching terrists. Why let them go to waste?

I mean, other than it’s illegal and a fundamental violation of the means permitted in the government’s job description?

Goyo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Nope. It is like the NASA being granted funds to buy a bunch of astronaut helmets for space travel and then using them as waste baskets. It looks like a misuse of funds, no matter how suitable the astronaut helmets are as waste baskets.

If the IMSI are useful to catch terrorists they do not need to go to waste. Just use them to catch the damn terrorists.

David says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What is the NASA supposed to do with ten thousands of astronaut helmets? Let them go to waste rather than let waste go to them?

There are not enough terrorists around for all the IMSI catchers. Heck, there are not enough warrants around for all the IMSI catchers, particularly without bullshitting the judges.

Goyo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“What is the NASA supposed to do with ten thousands of astronaut helmets”
Space travel, as stated when the money was asked for and granted. If they wanted helmets to use as wastebaskets, that’s what they should have asked for.

“There are not enough terrorists around for all the IMSI catchers.”
Then they should not have bought so many ISMI catchers in the first place. At least not with money granted for antiterrorist fight. And doing so still looks to me as a misuse of funds.

Just A. Fool says:

Re: Well - they were obviously looking for the guy responsible...

Why couldn’t they be used to locate people in trouble? A cell phone is a cell phone, and if there is one under that pile of debris, there might just be a person with it, and they might still be alive. If we have the tech to locate victims of disaster faster, don’t we have an obligation to?

Anonymous Coward says:

I knew a guy there. Lost his mom and sister. His dad lost his foot breaking it jumping into the water and snapping ot on something. Calling for help from cops who stole a hummer splashing around in the water joyriding almost brought a beat down on them instead of a trip to emerg which would have saved the foot. Busses were high jacked and either you paid to get on or put out in a gang bang. Katrina only taught how bad society gets instead how society comes together.

David says:

Well, not much of a surprise here

It’s pretty much established that law enforcement agencies illegally employ IMSI catchers for getting leads to petty crime then pursued by parallel construction.

Katrina occasioned a lot of petty crime.

So the application is rather more than less expected.

The interesting question rather is how high up the rationale “we need more money for illegal operations” carries weight. Because that’s the level where you need to start pruning in order to bring back law enforcement into honoring constitutional restraints.

I suspect that it’s pretty damn high up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Has anybody heard something from the telcos regarding stingray usage?
I guess they are afraid of national security arguments and bow before law enforcement agencies but perhaps same penny pinchers have seen the good sight of this.
If the government is providing “some” cell coverage they can save money on improving their real networks.

David says:

Re: The FBI needs this to do their job

Well, the U.S. public is known to be one of the worst contributors to the manmade components of global warming, so it’s rather natural to spy on the U.S. public in order to track down the person responsible for causing Katrina.

They’ll probably track down via telephone transcriptions some guy who repeatedly left the air condition running with open windows and sue him for a few cool billions and multiple counts of manslaughter.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

You know, I’ve never understood New Orleans.

I mean, building a coastal city below sea level is obviously not such a bright idea in the first place, especially when you’re right in the middle of hurricane territory. But they got lucky for a while.

When the inevitable finally happened, amid environmental and political circumstances that guarantee that, for the near future at least, the sea level will keep rising and hurricanes will get worse, that really should have been a wake-up call. But did they listen?

Of course not. These are people who live on the coast, below sea level, in hurricane territory! So obviously they do the dumbest thing possible: they rebuild.

Kinda makes me wonder what it will take for them to actually get the message: that’s a really stupid place to live, and it ought to be abandoned before more tragedies strike.

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