Baltimore Cops Asked Creators Of 'The Wire' To Keep Cellphone Surveillance Vulnerabilities A Secret

from the works-of-fiction-with-too-much-truth? dept

Over the past decade, criminals have apparently gained an insurmountable technology lead over law enforcement. I'm not sure how this is possible, especially considering many criminals don't have access to the same technology cops do, much less access to generous DHS funding, and yet, here we are witnessing police officers (following orders from the FBI) tossing cases and lying to judges in order to "protect" secret tools that aren't all that much of a secret.

We recently covered a Baltimore detective's courtroom admission that a) the Baltimore PD had deployed its Stingray equipment 4,300 times over the past seven years and b) that it had hidden this information from courts and defendants. The argument for this secrecy was that doing otherwise allows criminals to devise ways to beat the system.

No one's looking to expose ongoing investigations, but as far as some law enforcement agencies are concerned, everyone is under continuous investigation by default. And since that's the case, anything that might be construed as giving criminals a head start is subject to a thoroughly ridiculous code of silence that excludes the majority of the justice system.

This cop-specific technopanic is so all-encompassing that it has bled over into the unreality of creative efforts -- like TV shows. (via The Verge)

David Simon, creator of "The Wire" and a former Baltimore Sun reporter, said in an email that "the transition from landlines to cellular technology left police investigations vulnerable well over a decade ago."

He noted that there was new technology at the time — such as Nextel phones that mimicked walkie-talkies — that "was actually impervious to any interception by law enforcement during a critical window of time."

"At points, we were asked by law enforcement not to reveal certain vulnerabilities in our plotlines," Simon said. That included communications using Nextel devices.
The Wire also featured detectives using a cell signal-capturing device called a "Triggerfish." Any relation to today's Stingrays is likely not coincidental, no matter what the post-credits disclaimer might have stated. The Stingray isn't a secret, but it has been awarded an unprecedented amount of secrecy. Cops lie to judges, defendants and even prosecutors to keep the Stingray out of the public eye. And yet, it seems clear that The Wire's creators knew something about the technology over a decade ago.

But the inherent ridiculousness of asking a fictional television show to withhold dramatic elements just because they may have hewed too closely to reality can't be ignored. Criminals will find vulnerabilities in the system and law enforcement will work hard to close these gaps. But criminals aren't so far ahead as to be unstoppable.

This attempt to censor The Wire isn't much different than the law enforcement secrecy efforts we see being deployed in courts. The motivation behind these efforts is highly suspect. It doesn't seem so much to be aimed at preventing criminals from exploiting vulnerabilities as it is at keeping law enforcement officers from working any harder than they feel they should have to. It's not about keeping bad guys from outmaneuvering cops. It has more to do with preventing public disclosure from resulting in unwanted changes -- like additional scrutiny from magistrate judges or the challenging of submitted evidence. It's about preserving the most efficient law enforcement methods -- generally anything that doesn't require permission from an outside entity or generate a paper trail.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Apr 2015 @ 1:26pm

    What's next? Burning certain books because they resemble too closely to the government's current course?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Baron von Robber, 13 Apr 2015 @ 1:29pm

    Wow, think I'll start up a pilot show, NCIS: Stingray Division

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    dfed (profile), 13 Apr 2015 @ 1:29pm

    Obviously Get Smart needs to be prosecuted for giving away CIA secrets. Imagine all the times the Cone of Silence didn't work! Spies could totally subvert that technology now!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Apr 2015 @ 1:47pm

    Mobile phones, and landlines phones for that matter, are only of use to catch criminals because they do not take simple precautions against being overheard, and they pass critical information over the phone. But then many criminals have faith in magic, that is a belief that they will not be caught, to keep them out of the hands of the police.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rich Kulawiec, 13 Apr 2015 @ 1:50pm

    Probably not the first time

    But the inherent ridiculousness of asking a fictional television show to withhold dramatic elements just because they may have hewed too closely to reality can't be ignored.

    "Three Days of the Condor" examined this topic many years ago. It probably wasn't speculation then. It's certainly not speculation now.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 13 Apr 2015 @ 2:17pm

    If my math is correct . . .

    > Baltimore PD had deployed its Stingray equipment 4,300
    > times over the past seven years

    Is that about 614.29 times a year on average, or a stingray deployment every 14 hours 15.6 seconds?

    And that is 365 / 7 / 24.

    And that is assuming the detective wasn't understating it to make it not look too bad.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 13 Apr 2015 @ 2:18pm

      Re: If my math is correct . . .

      14 hours and 15.6 minutes. Or 14 hours, 15 minutes, 37.67 seconds. :-(

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 Apr 2015 @ 9:00pm

        Re: Re: If my math is correct . . .

        > 14 hours and 15.6 minutes. Or 14 hours, 15 minutes, 37.67 seconds. :-(

        So from this we can deduce that a Stingray device has just short of a fifteen hour battery life.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Dewy Drug Dealer aka DDD, 14 Apr 2015 @ 7:07am

          Re: Re: Re: If my math is correct . . .

          Thanks Techdirt!

          Now I know all I have to do is talk about stupid stuff for 14 hours and 15.6 minutes, then I can get to my real conversation with the cartel!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 13 Apr 2015 @ 2:22pm

    Everyone always under continuous investigation

    That says it right there. 1984 has arrived. Total surveillance state.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Apr 2015 @ 2:23pm

    No telling. One of these days criminals might figure out that any electronic communications could be subject to interception. They could decide to do face to face meetings with out cell phones, regular phones, tvs, or anything else in the room. I wonder what sort of electronic gadgetry they have for that one? Especially if it is done out in the woods far away from normal areas.

    The military figured out long ago the most secure communications was the messenger. Sealed scrolls handed to a runner. Runner changing out every so often. Rome had this system for their secure communications along with a simple letter slide to change the text so that even if it was intercepted it could not right away be read. Another one was the tarot deck, certain cards put in a package as the message. A priest at the other end told them what it meant.

    I don't think all their internet spying would help in this case. Multimillion dollar outfit misses the whole ball game.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Padpaw (profile), 13 Apr 2015 @ 2:38pm

    Seems more like police should be concerned over how much of their standing forces and unions are infiltrated by criminals that believe the laws do not apply to them

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Vic, 13 Apr 2015 @ 3:11pm

    For those, asking "what's next?" - Star Trek of course! TNG's characters always reveal too much information about the future (or is it the future?), IMHO!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), 14 Apr 2015 @ 5:44am

      Re:

      Baaaah! TNG and its starship's puny limitation on the number of shuttle craft it can carry.

      Now Voyager's designers were on the ball. They had the foresight to equip Voyager with an infinite number of shuttle craft. That's forward thinking my friend.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    phils, 14 Apr 2015 @ 1:06pm

    Back in the late 30's or early 40's the atom bomb was a key element in a science fiction story. Fortunately the powers that be (were?) then did not try to ban or censor the story as they realized that could reveal what they were developing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    billy, 14 Apr 2015 @ 8:51pm

    Mr Simon says this is legit.

    No mention of the batshitaly insane David Simon post from immediately after first Snowden articles? http://davidsimon.com/we-are-shocked-shocked/
    Seriously. Fuck this guy. Great TV show, ignorant human.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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