The Surveillance Tool that Tracks Cell Phones down to a Three Yards!

There are a good number of people talking about a device that is rumored to be able to not only track cell phones, but a whole lot more—and being used by law enforcement agents to keep communities safer and bring cases to a close more quickly.

What’s the Surveillance Device?

You may have heard it called the StingRay. You may also have heard that there is controversy around its use. More on that in a moment. The IMSI-catcher is both a cell site simulator and digital analyzer and was first manufactured by the Harris Corporation. The device was first made for the military and intelligence communities, but this device and other similar ones today are in widespread use by both local and state law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S.  It’s so common now that the device is generically referred to as a stingray.

The device has both passive (digital analyzer) and active (cell site simulator) capabilities. It can be mounted in vehicles, airplanes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and carried by hand.

Passive Capabilities: The device’s passive mode operations include:

  1. Conducting base station surveys, which is the process of using over-the-air signals to identify legitimate cell sites and precisely map their coverage areas
  2. Radio Jamming for either general denial of service purposes[9]
  3. Aiding in active mode protocol rollback attacks

Active Capabilities: In operating in active mode, the device mimics a wireless carrier cell tower in order to force all nearby mobile phones and other cellular data devices to connect to it according to its product description. What’s more, In active mode, the device can run multiple operations upon a cellular device. These include:

  1. Extracting stored data such as International Mobile Subscriber Identity (“IMSI”) numbers and Electronic Serial Number (“ESN”)
  2. Writing cellular protocol metadata to internal storage
  3. Forcing an increase in signal transmission power
  4. Forcing an abundance of radio signals to be transmitted
  5. Tracking and locating the cellular device user
  6. Conducting a denial of service attack
  7. Encryption key extraction
  8. Interception of communications content

Weighing in on the Controversy

The Nondisclosure Requirement: To buy the device, law enforcement officials are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement which will prevent them from saying almost anything about the technology itself. This is to prevent criminals and terrorists from learning the technology and circumventing it according to the FBI.

Privacy Concerns: Because the tool is adopted so much secrecy, there are many communities that have complained that they don’t know what the technology does. Their concerns are whether the technology is infringing on the privacy of its residents. According to a recent article,

“the confidentiality has elevated the stakes in a longstanding debate about the public disclosure of government practices versus law enforcement’s desire to keep its methods confidential. While companies routinely require non disclosure agreements for technical products, legal experts say these agreements raise questions and are unusual given the privacy and even constitutional issues at stake.”

In Chicago, the police department is working hard to keep the details of how the technology the covert cell phone tracking systems they use a secret. In fact, they are currently battling a $120,000 lawsuit which seeks to disclose how, when and where officers are using these systems.

The Chicago Sun Times article which tells of the current suit also comments on privacy concerns being raised, noting that “privacy activists across the country have begun to question whether law enforcement agencies have used the devices to track people involved in demonstrations in violation of their constitutional rights. They also have concerns the technology scoops up the phone data of innocent citizens and police targets alike.”

To that end, the article provides opinion from FBI Agent Bradley Morrison, chief of the bureau’s technology-tracking unit at Quantico, Virginia, who issued a statement to the city attorneys, explaining that “public disclosure of information about the devices could help crooks create defensive technology.”

“This, in turn,” Agent Morrison adds, “could prevent the successful prosecution of a wide variety of criminal cases involving terrorism, kidnappings, murder and other conspiracies where cellular location is frequently used.”

To learn which states currently use them and what the American Civil Liberties Union is saying about activity within each state, click here.

Weigh In! What benefits does your department experience from using tracking systems like the StingRay? Or, if you don’t utilize this technology now, would you if funding was available? Weigh in on the topic! We’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic that’s been abuzz the last couple weeks.

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