Police Regularly Use Stingrays Without A Warrant To Find Petty Criminals, Then Try To Hide That Fact

from the more-of-the-same dept

Over the last few years, we've published a ton of stories about the growing police reliance on Stingray cell site simulator devices (also known as IMSI catchers), that mimic a real cell phone tower and help provide the location of a certain mobile phone. As we've written, these devices have been super popular with police departments, who often receive them from the federal government with strict non-disclosure agreements, which means law enforcement has been known to lie to courts or simply drop cases where the usage is at risk of coming out in court.

It seems that this story is getting more and more national attention. Brad Heath, over at USA Today, has a fairly deep dive into the fact that police are using these devices to solve petty crimes all the time, without a warrant, and then refusing to tell defendants how they were caught (which is a bit of a constitutional no-no). Heath specifically was able to get a police surveillance log in Baltimore, which detailed how the devices were used there.
The records show that the city's police used stingrays to catch everyone from killers to petty thieves, that the authorities regularly hid or obscured that surveillance once suspects got to court and that many of those they arrested were never prosecuted.

Defense attorneys assigned to many of those cases said they did not know a stingray had been used until USA TODAY contacted them, even though state law requires that they be told about electronic surveillance.

“I am astounded at the extent to which police have been so aggressively using this technology, how long they’ve been using it and the extent to which they have gone to create ruses to shield that use,” Stephen Mercer, the chief of forensics for Maryland’s public defenders, said.
Some of the cases are absolutely ridiculous -- such as the one where an angry husband grabbed his wife's phone and left the house. Police declared it a theft and used an IMSI catcher to track it down... but by that point, the husband had already given it back to his wife, so the police just showed up at her home where she already had the phone. Also, because it's so easy to use these devices to just go and locate anyone, Baltimore police sometimes used it just to find the location of witnesses (i.e., people who haven't committed any crimes). That's going way over the line of what's appropriate.

These things are being used so often in so many cases with so little transparency, one hopes that the growing press attention will finally lead to much more accountability on how these devices are used and a requirement for a warrant.

Filed Under: baltimore, cell site simulators, imsi catchers, law enforcement, police, privacy, stingrays


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 24 Aug 2015 @ 2:14pm

    Also, because it's so easy to use these devices to just go and locate anyone, Baltimore police sometimes used it just to find the location of witnesses (i.e., people who haven't committed any crimes).
    So somebody who presses charges against someone harassing them might then get stalked by those investigating the original crime? Way to fucking go! (-_Q)

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 2:22pm

    The saddest part about this whole thing is that after the widespread abuse is finally curtailed, there will be no punishments handed out and life will go on as if it never happened, even though it shouldn't have in the first place.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 3:53pm

      Re:

      No, the saddest part about this is that the crime rate in Baltimore, including murders, is going through the roof this year and the police have been either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. Baltimore is now arguably the most dangerous city in the country, IN SPITE OF all this extra-Constitutional nonsense being undertaken by police.

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

      • identicon
        David, 24 Aug 2015 @ 10:06pm

        Re: Re:

        It's not "in spite", it's because. NSA and CIA have demonstrated repeatedly that wallowing in the information from people who don't take precautions since they aren't actually from the purportedly targeted group of criminals detracts from doing any effective detective work. There are only so many false leads you can follow.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 4:21pm

      Re:

      punishment will be meted out to those that exposed this no doubt.

      Shoot the messenger brutalize, the witnesses and murder anyone that stands up for their rights.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 2:40pm

    The REAL question the cops need to answer.

    Are you accountable?

    If the highly probable answer given is "no," my advice is "Brace for sh**storm!"

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 3:15pm

    Baltimore police sometimes used it just to find the location of witnesses (i.e., people who haven't committed any crimes). That's going way over the line of what's appropriate.
    That's more than just way over the line. That's the last step before hitting the police state event horizon.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 3:55pm

      Re:

      I think we already hit that... the cops just haven't realized it yet.

      If they wanted to, local law enforcement agencies could probably declare martial law right now and the federal government would back them up. Look at what's happening in Ferguson.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 4:42pm

    Turn about

    Since they are happily using them all the time with no regard for legal or moral obligations, just do the same thing to them. Start tracking their locations. Since they are doing their job, they have no expectation of privacy. Once this starts, they will provide all of the legal arguments anyone could need as they try to shut you down.
    They know they have something to hide and they are worried about equal use of this kind of tech.

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

  • icon
    scotts13 (profile), 24 Aug 2015 @ 4:47pm

    But,but,but...

    I don't think private citizens are ALLOWED to use IMSI catchers!

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 6:55pm

      Re: But,but,but...

      Neither is anyone else unless it is a emergency according the the FCC license granted the creators of the Stingray. Honestly they should be charged by the FCC every time they use it, since there have been 0 qualifying emergencies so far.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2015 @ 12:09am

        Re: Re: But,but,but...

        Note, having to leave the doughnut shop and actually go and talk to people to get information is an emergency.



        /Sarc

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2015 @ 5:12pm

    “I am astounded at the extent to which police have been so aggressively using this technology, how long they’ve been using it and the extent to which they have gone to create ruses to shield that use,” Stephen Mercer, the chief of forensics for Maryland’s public defenders, said.


    Give a little power and LEO's will abuse it , they're abusive by nature name a bully who isn't.

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

  • identicon
    Glenn, 24 Aug 2015 @ 5:18pm

    If they're looking for petty criminals, then maybe they should just go look in a mirror.

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

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 24 Aug 2015 @ 5:31pm

    Phones have GPS, and cell towers don't usually move. Make every phone look at a tower's known location and add a PKI style digital certificate for each tower just for kicks, and you just drastically raised the bar for messing with people's phones.

    The low hanging fruit should be that any tower that's moving is automatically discounted in the phone's connection algorithm. Shouldn't be too hard to at the very least make an app to detect a moving tower.

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

    • icon
      Sheogorath (profile), 24 Aug 2015 @ 7:21pm

      Re:

      Somebody's already made an app to detect StingRays.

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

      • identicon
        David, 25 Aug 2015 @ 2:54am

        Re: Re:

        But there are missing pieces. The signal strength data should be recorded, the data anonymized and collected, the location and duration of the Stingray use triangulated, crosschecked with warrants on record in the area and any Stingray use not covered by a warrant reported to the ACLU and FCC.

        This shit is predominantly illegal and thus should be stopped. And if law enforcement is turning itself into organized crime, it falls to the citizens to bypass them on the way to the courts.

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

        • icon
          Sheogorath (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 10:49am

          Re: Re: Re:

          [...] the data anonymized and collected [...]
          Thanks to metadata, there is no anonymised data anymore. ;)
          But seriously, if you think there's missing pieces in that project, why not let the devs know or even join the effort yourself? You sure seem to know more about that stuff than I.

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

  • identicon
    JoeT, 25 Aug 2015 @ 6:38am

    95% wrong, 5% OK?

    The warrant-less tracking of witnesses thing just seems Stasi-like, as does tracking suspects' phones. On the other hand, tracking *my* phone after it has been stolen, or tracking the phone of a kidnapped person, without a warrant, seems OK. A warrant would be preferred, but not strictly necessary (permission implicitly given in the stolen phone case, and exigent circumstances plus probably permission in kidnapping).

    On the other hand, not disclosing that it was cell phone tracking is still wrong. At a minimum, disclosing that it was done by cell-phone tracking would satisfy the (likely illegal certainly immoral) NDAs, since there is ambiguity if it was done through a (likely immoral but sadly certainly legal) business records cell-tower dump.

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

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 25 Aug 2015 @ 7:24am

    Imagine if Stingray technology could be modified

    Imagine if this technology could be modified so that it would be just as easy to locate a major criminal as it currently is to locate an innocent witness to a crime?

    Then, instead of using a No Knock Warrant, executed by a paramilitary force that could take over some small countries, and possibly at the wrong address, the police could simply quietly arrest the major criminal in a setting that is safe and convenient.

    It is unfortunate that this technology only works for finding witnesses or small time crooks.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Aug 2015 @ 8:51am

      Re: Imagine if Stingray technology could be modified

      Might as well imagine that cars can only damage other cars and not people and bikes. Pipe dream wishes are just that. This is a clear violation of both the law, and public trust. No excuses.

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

  • identicon
    GEMont, 25 Aug 2015 @ 1:15pm

    The Truth Free Press

    "...one hopes that the growing press attention will finally lead to much more accountability on..."

    Back in the real world:

    The growing press attention will lead to a much smaller press attention, now that the Players have realized the Adversary has become aware of another one of their secret War-time surveillance activities.

    After all, the Press is owned by the same Players. :)

    End result: more secrecy and much less accountability.

    ---

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

  • identicon
    GEMont, 26 Aug 2015 @ 1:59am

    A Government Under Siege - by its own civilian population.

    The short answer, to the final question directed towards judges, from your linked article:

    "Are you happy now? Are you going to do anything about it?"

    .... is,

    Its not very likely that the judges can actually do anything, since all the US laws pertaining to such things, were (secretly) changed after 9/11.

    The long answer....

    You see, according to the War Time Measures Laws enacted right after they pulled 9/11 out of their hat, (and also according to the newly interpreted reduced-to-one-page US constitution), the police are not just allowed to both secretly use the stingray devices, (and any other technology that gets the job done), and to lie to the judges about the stingray devices, (and any other technology that is being secretly used), legally, they have been DIRECTED TO DO SO, by the federal government, who also secretly supplies them with the devices, the training and the legal immunity ....

    because terrorists .....
    because druggies .....

    ...are Civilian Enemies from among the general public, and could be anyone - even your mom!!

    You see, there's a war afoot, and We The People are the enemy, so we cannot be allowed to realize that the US government has declared war (secretly) upon We The People.

    Letting the enemy know that they're under attack, is absolutely not going to happen if the USG has anything to say about it - thus the legal secrecy and the legal use of secret devices and the legal perjury - because if the Enemy was aware that it is being attacked as the enemy of the state, We The People might fight back.

    And if there is one thing cowards really hate, its when someone they're attacking, fights back.

    So, judges will continue to pretend to not know this is happening for another decade or more - as long as the public allows them to do so actually - the USG will do nothing to change this for certain - because to do otherwise, is to hamper the war effort, and to aid and abet the enemy; the US public, known to the Feds as The Adversary.

    And any judge who fore-warned the Enemy, would be seen by the Feds as a war criminal and at the very least, unemployed.

    ---

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


Add Your Comment

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



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

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



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Techdirt Logo Gear
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.