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.

View comments (17)
Read the Terms of Use


Thank you very much. This is a start. Why the law enforcement officials using this not being arrested and charged? They know it's illegal. Did they eat paint chips as kids. Ignorance is no excuse and freedom isn't free!


Bravo, ACLU!


Well, this is a victory of a sort, but the Constitution is still in full retreat.

I read the preliminaries to the testimony in the transcript and I want to express my disgust. On Page 6, Line 11, the judge asks if there was probable cause. The prosecution says there was. Previously the prosecution said there was no warrant. The judge accepts that as routine. It is not. It is a violation of the Constitution.

I think the Constitution can't be much clearer: there should be no searches or seizures without a warrant, and to obtain a warrant, law enforcement must demonstrate probable cause.

Current criminal law allows the police to do anything without a warrant and then try to show probable cause afterwards. This makes us into a police state.


All I know is, if a sex offender can be tracked and... we got his number... would'nt you prefer your loved ones be saved?


The last time I checked I considered myself a part of the public but I don't really GIVE a hoot what the police are doing, not compared to the people who appear to have a totally unhealthy obsession with it. If any of this impedes homicide investigations, any of this obsession with "transparency," I'm going to be exTREMEly distraught.
Two people in my family were murdered, one that we can prove (because it's so obviously a homicide even a big dope could see that it is) and one we CAN'T prove. They seem to ALways be "needing to withhold information due to homicide investigations." The police AND FBI have told us so in almost exactly those words.
IMO the public HAS NO RIGHT AT ALL to have information about a specific case, they're just being nosy dastards to think they deserve all that, and don't think that large crowds of people aren't of that attitude. When someone in our family was murdered, J.Q Public thought they deserved to know everything in the world.
Just like people think they have a right to listen to the 911 tape of my friend's daughter dying at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And then after the judge released the tape of it these bastards from hell STILL told her she was lying about her daughter's death and that all of it is a hoax. Even their Assistant DA is doing that now. That man deserves to be debarred for life and sent back to the hell out of which he sprang fully formed; like the Omen.

People in the public don't give a rat's ASS what you're going through; the fact that they can MAKE all these goddam insensitive statements in the face of your grief over a violent death is a stone solid testament to that observation.
The fact that people decide they're going to be jackasses about it makes me not want to tell them ANYthing. They can shove their attitudes up their butts with a red-hot poker for all I care. It's almost 13 years later and we're STILL being treated to large doses of insensitive clods.
I don't trust people's reasons for wanting all this information. If they wanted it for a GOOD reason I'd have almost no problem with it. But I never meet ANYone who wants the information for a good reason. All I ever meet are the people who think they know everything and can act whatever stupid-ass way they FEEL. The therapist I used to see when this first happened said they were inappropriate to make the insensitive statements. He even went as far to say "they need to shut their mouths if those are the only types of comments they're going to give to the world, because it doesn't help at all."


ABC NEWS 7: PI Bil Warner says Michal Barfield should just butt out. “I don’t like him. I think he’s doing a terrible thing here, taking away a very important took to help fight crime.” SEE


Why doesn't someone just design an app to detect this new technology?


Why doesn't someone write an App to detect this kind of intrusion. Fair is Fair.


This device allows law enforcement to "hack" smart phones which are small computers. That's a crime. What's keeping them from doing fishing expeditions and hurting someone they don't happen to like because of where there from, sexual orientation, religious or non religious beliefs? Who is actually making sure a state trooper isn't taking it out at night and hacking people's phones on the highway and trying to get them to wreck because the state police man didn't like what was in the phone? This device infringes on everyone's rights and have all the devices been tested for strong doses of radiation? If you have it pointed at a human can it cause a radiation sickness if it's pointed to close to a person? Inquiring minds would like to know.


Another question should be are these devices compliant with FCC rules?


Stay Informed