Trickle Down Surveillance

Cell site simulators, also known as "stingrays," are devices that trick cellphones into reporting their locations and identifying information. They do so by mimicking cellphone towers and sending out electronic cues that allow the police to enlist cellphones as tracking devices, thus revealing people's movements with great precision. The equipment also sends intrusive electronic signals through the walls of private homes and offices, learning information about the locations and identities of phones inside. Initially the domain of the National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies, the use of stingrays has trickled down to federal, state and local law enforcement. In one Florida case, a police officer explained in court that he "quite literally stood in front of every door and window" with his stingray to track the phones inside a large apartment complex.

Even when police are tracking a specific suspect, stingrays sweep up information about large numbers of bystanders who happen to be nearby; if stingrays yell out "Marco," the mobile phones in the area reply, "Polo." The result is that police gather the electronic serial numbers and other information about phones, as well as the direction and strength of each phone's signal, allowing precise location tracking. Stingrays can also gather information about people's communications, such as which phone numbers they call. Because we carry our cellphones with us virtually everywhere we go, stingrays can paint a precise picture of where we are and who we spend time with, including our location in a lover's house, in a psychologist's office or at a political protest.

This sort of invasive surveillance raises serious questions about whether our tax dollars are funding violations of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment. At a minimum, police should be required to go to a neutral judge, demonstrate probable cause and get a warrant before using stingrays, but many law enforcement agencies are not doing that. Instead, they seek permission using "pen register" and "trap and trace" statutes, which are based on a low legal standard and are designed to allow collection only of limited information about the numbers a phone dials or the numbers of incoming calls. Other agencies may not be going to a judge at all, or they may be concealing stingray use even when they do seek a court order.

Read the rest of this piece on Al Jazeera America.

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You really shouldn't use "being at a lover's house" as an example. :-)


This is deeply disturbing. There must be something the public can do to combat this?


For the love of god, before you take someone's word about surveillance equipment actually take the time to research it.


Two thoughts come to mind:

"They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." — Benjamin Franklin


The core, fundamental principles behind our human and constitutional rights, protections, and liberties do not change as the result of a paradigm shift concerning medium. If we endorse these principles and hold them as truth, then we need but assert that truth to find the solution to our current problem of mass, warrantless surveillance -rather than wasting time, energy, and effort attempting to formulate ways in which we might protect ourselves in the digital medium. We need but assert our guaranteed rights and protections.

Our "papers" are no longer necessarily made of paper, but the core, founding principle still exists. The same holds true for "searches and seizures" which, clearly, are no longer limited to our domiciles or our persons, but extend to our devices and the providers we entrust.

Vicki B.

Well I guess I won't be downloading any more naked pictures of Johnny Depp. That's the worst thing I've done online. Anything else, I don't CARE if you know it about me. I don't even care if they know what medications I take. I don't like that they know but I'm not going to let it bother me.
I've told anyone online who reads what I write that I'm a Republican for Obama. That's a literal group on Facebook; it started not surprisingly in Chicago and has over 50,000 members.
I CAN'T say I'm a Liberal because I believe in the death penalty and oppose abortion for myself. I oppose wanton abortion for everyone; i.e., I don't want to pay for someone to get an abortion because they were deliberately reckless about getting pregnant. In that case, I think you should at least conSIDer giving it up for adoption before going straight to aborting it.
Of course, I WOULD feel that way since I'M adopted. I prefer adopted over dead.
I'm also uncomfortable with gay marriage but I DON'T oppose it. I just don't care. I don't support it by giving money to it, because I figure enough people are doing it in my stead. Besides that I have no money to give to anything right now, because I still can't find a job. I have a college education with no work. It's crazy.
I'm a Republican for Obama and don't care who knows it.

LJ Farrell

But your complacence doesn't negate the 4th Amendment, Vicki. Your lack of imagination doesn't give you the right to concede my right to privacy. That's not the way the Constitution works, and that's not how America's supposed to work.

Take a second to think of what you're saying--since you've done nothing wrong, privacy isn't an issue for you. The corollary is that those who desire privacy must have done something wrong.

The 4th Amendment is not some quaint outdated vestige of the neoclassical era--it's essential to a free society. We don't sing in the shower when we know someone's listening. We stop dancing when we think somebody's watching. Sources stop speaking to reporters. Patients no longer seek medical advice. Whistleblowers don't step forward, intellectual property is in jeopardy. There are a host of activities and thoughts chilled when we fear observation and not all are nefarious.

Privacy is essential for all creative endeavors to gestate and for thought to flourish. For example, if I want to join an organization to overturn an injustice, I might require secrecy and privacy. If I want to dissent against governmental overreach, I'm exercising the highest form of patriotism according to Jefferson, yet unwarranted searches invade my privacy and curtail my ability to reform my nation. Besides, who's to say what's legal today won't be illegal tomorrow? What's more, it's plain some laws should be disobeyed.

But at bottom, I really don't believe your facile, incurious reaction. If you don't want privacy, I dare you to post your email and bank passwords in response.


Why bother with stingrays? Just serve a court order every few months compelling all cell phone company data to be handed over from every real bonna fide cell tower anyway, and you have all the same data nationwide without a single stingray deployed... Oh, wait... yea, that's what we're doing, isn't it...

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