by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
dhs, imsi catcher, location, privacy, stingrays

DHS Deploying Stingrays Hundreds Of Times A Year

from the not-so-much-natsec-as-it-is-basic-warrant-service dept

It's no secret most law enforcement agencies own or have access to Stingray devices. But some deployment totals can still raise eyebrows. The Baltimore PD, for example, deployed Stingrays 4,300 times over an 8-year period -- more than once per day. And it hid these behind pen register orders, so that judges, defendants, and defense lawyers had no idea exactly how the PD located suspects.

Thanks to Buzzfeed's FOIA request, we now know another government agency has been firing up its Stingrays at least once a day. And it's one of the nation's largest.

A document obtained by BuzzFeed News shows the US Department of Homeland Security used secretive cell phone–tracking devices nationwide more than 1,800 times from 2013 to 2017.

The information, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that Homeland Security Investigations, a major investigative arm of DHS, used what's known as cell-site simulator over-the-air technology 1,885 times from Jan. 1, 2013, to Oct. 11, 2017 throughout the US.

There's not a lot to be gleaned from the document [PDF], other than the total number of deployments and cities where they may have been deployed. Given the DHS's purview, one would assume these are deployed only in serious criminal investigations. That assumption would be wrong, as DHS component ICE has already shown.

Sen. Ron Wyden recently asked US Immigration and Customs Enforcement for information on the agency’s use of the devices after it was determined ICE used a cell-site simulator to arrest an undocumented immigrant. Among the questIons Wyden sought answers to was what steps the agency had taken to limit interference to the phones of people not being investigated.

ICE may be making the most use of DHS Stingray devices. In its answers to Wyden's questions, the agency made it clear it uses Stingrays for all sorts of banal things, like tracking down pretty much anyone its looking for or simply sniffing out phone details for future subpoenas.

Of course, while it's doing this hundreds of times a year, the phone service of everyone DHS agencies aren't looking for is interrupted. But that's OK with ICE, because the only phone service anyone really needs is emergency service, according to director Thomas Homan.

“In all circumstances, devices are always able to dial 911 without any disruption of service,” Homan said.

So, not really a problem, according to ICE -- even if ICE is doing nothing more than readying a subpoena.

This is why the Supreme Court's take on Carpenter will be important. A ruling following the current view on third party data might encourage the federal government to ditch its voluntary Stingray warrant requirement. It will also encourage other law enforcement agencies to continue hiding evidence of Stingray use behind pen register requests, leading defendants and presiding judges to believe the phone they tracked in real time was actually just historical cell site location data.

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  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 22 Nov 2017 @ 12:24pm

    Can we get a coverage map?

    I bet the Stingray coverage map is larger than any of the actual telco coverage maps.

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

    • identicon
      David, 23 Nov 2017 @ 1:13am

      Re: Can we get a coverage map?

      It would be fun if all those government entities were required to uphold net neutrality.

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

      • icon
        Bergman (profile), 26 Nov 2017 @ 4:56pm

        Re: Re: Can we get a coverage map?

        Technically they are -- blocking an electronic message is an interception of it, which requires a warrant or the interception is a violation of wiretapping statutes or the computer fraud & abuse act (depending on whether the message is voice or text).

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2017 @ 1:46pm

    Shutting down cell phone services.. is their any overlap of deployment with political protest?

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2017 @ 1:56pm

    Stingrays are also illegal other than emergencies

    Since the waiver granted for use of stingray type devices specified that they would only be used in actual emergencies, every single use has been illegal and they should be prevented from ever using it again. I would not be surprised to find out that the Cartels are now using them to track the agents and police since they are so pervasive.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2017 @ 4:22pm

    An aside: speaking of the Baltimore PD

    They just dumped -- at 5 PM the day before a holiday weekend -- the news that the detective who was fatally shot last week was (a) shot with his own gun (b) due to testify the next day before a federal grand jury (c) in the matter of a corruption case involving his fellow officers (d) who have been running drugs and dealing guns (e) quite lucratively.

    I wonder if they could use a Stingray to solve this case.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Nov 2017 @ 7:54am

    I would like GM to sue for trademark infringement

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

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