Imagine you are in the middle of your typical day-to-day activities. Maybe you are driving, spending time with family, or working. If you are like most people, your phone is at your side on a daily basis. Little do you know that, at any time, police and law enforcement could be looking at information stored on your phone. You haven’t done anything wrong. You haven’t been asked for permission. You aren’t suspected of any crime.
Police have the power to collect your location along with the numbers of your incoming and outgoing calls and intercept the content of call and text communication. They can do all of this without you ever knowing about it.
How? They use a shoebox-sized device called a StingRay. This device (also called an IMSI catcher) mimics cell phone towers, prompting all the phones in the area to connect to it even if the phones aren’t in use.
The police use StingRays to track down and implicate perpetrators of mainly domestic crimes. The devices can be mounted in vehicles, drones, helicopters, and airplanes, allowing police to gain highly specific information on the location of any particular phone, down to a particular apartment complex or hotel room.
Quietly, StingRay use is growing throughout local and federal law enforcement with little to no oversight. The ACLU has discovered that at least 68 agencies in 23 different states own StingRays, but says that this “dramatically under represents the actual use of StingRays by law enforcement agencies nationwide.”
Information from potentially thousands of phones is being collected every time a StingRay is used. Signals are sent into the homes, bags, and pockets of innocent individuals. Richard Tynan, a technologist with Privacy International notes that, “there really isn’t any place for innocent people to hide from a device such as this.”
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states that, “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Does the StingRay violate these standards? The drafters of the Constitution recognized that restricting the government from violating privacy is essential for a free society. That’s why the Fourth Amendment exists.
When operating in active mode, the Stingray device mimics a wireless carrier cell tower in order to force all nearby mobile phones and other cellular data devices to connect to it.
Law Enforcement is using StingRays without a warrant in most cases. For example, the San Bernardino Police Department used their StingRay 300 times without a warrant in a little over a year.
In 2010, the Tallahassee Police Department used a StingRay in a warrantless search to track down the suspect of a crime. A testimony from an unsealed hearing transcript talks about how police went about finding their target. The ACLU states:
“Police drove through the area using the vehicle-based device until they found the apartment complex in which the target phone was located, and then they walked around with the handheld device and stood ‘at every door and every window in that complex’ until they figured out which apartment the phone was located in. In other words, police were lurking outside people’s windows and sending powerful electronic signals into their private homes in order to collect information from within.”
A handful of states have passed laws requiring police and federal agents to get a warrant before using a StingRay. They must show probable cause for one of the thousands of phones that they are actually searching. However, a number of jurisdictions have not setting up different standards of protection regarding this piece of technology.
If you need help regarding a criminal situation you may find yourself in, please call us at Goldfinch Winslow 843-357-9301. Allow us the chance to serve you by defending your Constitutional Rights.