VICTORY: Judge Releases Information about Police Use of Stingray Cell Phone Trackers

A Florida judge has sided with the ACLU to order release of information about police use of “stingrays,” which are invasive surveillance devices that send out powerful signals to trick cell phones into transmitting their locations and identifying information. The Tallahassee judge’s pro-transparency decision stands in contrast to extreme secrecy surrounding stingray records in another Florida court, which is at the center of an emergency motion filed by the ACLU today.

The ACLU learned several months ago about a case where Tallahassee police used a stingray to track a phone to a suspect’s apartment without getting a warrant. Although the detective responsible for the tracking testified in court about using a stingray, in deference to the government’s demand for secrecy the court closed the hearing to the public and sealed the transcript.

The ACLU filed a motion asking the judge to unseal the transcript, citing the public’s First Amendment right of access to court proceedings. In response, the government tried to justify continued secrecy by invoking the federal Homeland Security Act and other federal laws. As the ACLU explained to the court, those laws have no bearing because this case involves state judicial records, and because the government has waived its ability to invoke broad secrecy arguments by already releasing significant information about its use of stingrays.

Late yesterday, the judge ordered unsealing of the entire transcript. The portion that the government had sought to keep secret is here. It confirms key information about the invasiveness of stingray technology, including that:

  • Stingrays “emulate a cellphone tower” and “force” cell phones to register their location and identifying information with the stingray instead of with real cell towers in the area.
  • Stingrays can track cell phones whenever the phones are turned on, not just when they are making or receiving calls.
  • Stingrays force cell phones in range to transmit information back “at full signal, consuming battery faster.” Is your phone losing battery power particularly quickly today? Maybe the cops are using a stingray nearby.
  • When in use, stingrays are “evaluating all the [cell phone] handsets in the area” in order to search for the suspect’s phone. That means that large numbers of innocent bystanders’ location and phone information is captured.
  • In this case, police used two versions of the stingray — one mounted on a police vehicle, and the other carried by hand. 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.
  • The Tallahassee detective testifying in the hearing estimated that, between spring of 2007 and August of 2010, the Tallahassee Police had used stingrays approximately “200 or more times.”

The judge’s decision to release the transcript demonstrates that the government’s attempts to hide basic information about stingray surveillance from the public are unreasonable. The decision is also a rejection of the federal government’s attempts to meddle in state public records matters (in this case, the FBI had asked the local prosecutor to keep the transcript secret, even though this was purely a local investigation).

When police engage in invasive tracking of our locations and communications, it is crucial that the public have access to accurate information so it can participate in an informed debate. The release of this transcript serves that goal.

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Anonymous

Also do these devices cause extra data usage on cell phones leaving you to pay for the extra data they're "stealing" that's going to their "computer" device (that they're STEALING WITHOUT A WARRANT!!!!) from your "computer" device? Again inquiring minds would like to know.

Anonymous

Electronic crimes? "Network intrusion"???

Anonymous

Metadata shouldn't be collected either without a very strong warrant. Metadata can be very revealing and it's still data! I along with mostly everybody else pay to have data and metadata so it's personal property of mine since I pay for mine and should be treated as an "effect"! The 4th amendment which is the law has been in place since 1789!

Anonymous

No... they are not FCC approved. Well I say that. I'm sure they are now but should they be... NO!

The last comment is the main reason to be upset.

How many bad cops can access this. Granted we don't hear about rogue cops all the time. Ŕemeber these guys are very well armed they have at least 4 weapons intended to kill maim paralyze or render you blind or unconscious. Plus they are fully protected and they have that badge which sadly to many of those carriers they feel it gives them the right to do whatever they want. At least when I was on my own property 3 weeks ago and the police decided that I didn't belong on my property at 12:00 at night and sent 6 patrol cars guns blazing... I was thrown on the hood of a car illegally searched and harassed and detained for 3 hours....

Did I mention I was on my own property...

Turns out a neighbor nearby saw a light and called the cops.
that's all it takes to have your neighbor assaulted. Just call and say you see a light.

So when you say that we don't need to know then I tell you right now that either your a troll or you have no clue. I have friends who are officers some of them I can't for the life of me understand how they passed anything to carry a gun around much less a gun and a badge with the "this let's me do whatever i want" mentality. ..

Anonymous

I agree with what you're saying on the last post. They think and mostly do get away with what they want and it's very wrong! They should be FCC compliant but I do believe that law enforcement shouldn't have these devices. I and along with my family and friends view this as the watergate scandal but on a way bigger scale. It's already been reported in Florida they fired it of 200+ times without a WARRANT! A "kingfish" device was first used in the early 2000's and it can collect 10s of thousands of phones information and data so imagine what this "stingray" and "hailstorm" does. For $300,000 I'm sure it can turn your phones mic and camera on. Not to mention probably mimic your phone. Ars technica has really great info about these devices and a little on what they do. http://macombpolitics.blogspot.com/2014/03/allegations-of-oakland-county-spying.html?m=1
Allegations about hailstorm above link.

Learned about t...

Thank you ACLU for trying to save us, from ourselves. It is our own ignorance that lets our Constitutional rights erode away. The same people who don't see anything wrong in this type of warrantless surveillance -- and warrants based on false claims of using a "confidential source" (when in fact the confidential source is a law enforcement officer using a StingRay illegally), are the same people who think that there is no problem with a "few" innocent people being sent to prison as long as the police are locking up enough guilty ones. In their opinions, those innocent people are probably guilty of some other crimes, so it's fine by them . . . until it's their innocent son or daughter -- then suddenly the ACLU isn't so bad after all.

In the mean time, all of us are subject to having our cell phone "forced" over to at StringRay whenever one is turned on in our area, and anyone who believes that these devices aren't used, at times at least, to steal our communications, both text and voice, WITHOUT a warrant or judicial oversight, is fooling only themselves.

Anonymous

Law enforcement has way too much power for it's own good. And what happens when any one person or thing has too much power? The potential for abuse increases. Our civil liberties are being trampled. It.s not that I have anything to hide but at the same time my own husband doesn't go through my phone (although he can at anytime) why would I want a stranger to?

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