Back to News & Commentary

You're Getting Warmer...

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
Share This Page
September 26, 2011

Last week, the Wall Street Journal profiled the StingRay. And I don’t mean the sea creature. The StingRay is a device that acts like a cell phone tower — except it doesn’t help your phone complete calls. Rather, it fools your phone into thinking it’s connecting to a cell tower and forces your phone to register its location — with the law enforcement agent wielding the device.

According to the Journal, there are two ways that law enforcement can use a StingRay. Either they can point its antenna at a location and collect the cell numbers there and use those numbers to identify the people present. Or, the device can be used to locate a phone when the agents know the number associated with it but don’t know exactly where the phone is. To do so, the agents drive around until they get a signal from the phone in question. Think of it as a space-age metal detector or a grown-up version of the You’re Getting Warmer game.

Patents have existed for StingRays, also called AmberJack, KingFish, TriggerFish, and LoggerHead, since at least 2002, and in 2005 the Department of Justice put out this manual referencing them in passing, but their use is still shrouded in secrecy. And, the government aims to keep it that way. According to the Journal, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation…has a policy of deleting the data gathered in their use, mainly to keep suspects in the dark about their capabilities.” And privacy advocates, oversight officials, and good government watch dogs. Oh, and courts. At least one prosecutor obtained a court order to use a StingRay without disclosing to the court what device he was actually using. His explanation to the judge who questioned him on it during the subsequent criminal trial? “It was a standard practice, your honor.” Um.

There is simply too much secrecy surrounding law enforcement’s use of and access to cell phone location information. That’s why in August, 35 ACLU affiliates filed 381 public records requests in 32 states seeking to learn how their local law enforcement agencies use and access cell phone location information. Information has been trickling in, and we’ll be highlighting more of it on this blog and adding it to this map in the coming days and weeks, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s what we know about StingRays:

The good news is that, according to the Wall Street Journal, these “devices are sold only to law-enforcement and government agencies.” So your crazy ex is not likely to get one and begin stalking your cell phone. The bad news is that while we know these “devices are only sold to law-enforcement and government agencies,” that’s about all we know. The public has been kept almost entirely in the dark about how they’re being used, and it’s now sounding like they might be used pretty frequently. The Journal tells us that the Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff’s Department uses the equipment “about on a monthly basis.”

And, we got this salient fact in response to our public records request on cell phone location information: Gilbert, AZ (which is in Maricopa County) informed us that the “Gilbert Police Department obtained a $150,000 grant from the State Homeland Security Program. These funds, along with $94,195 of R.I.C.O monies, were used to purchase cell phone tracking equipment in June 2008 (total acquisition cost of 244,195).” Did they purchase a StingRay? What other equipment might they have purchased? These two sentences aren’t enough for us to know for sure, but we’ll do our darnedest to find out.

In the meantime, this is just another reason to urge your members of Congress to support the bills introduced by Sen. Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chaffetz’s (R-UT), both called the “Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act,” which would create location privacy protections for law enforcement and the commercial sector. Supporting the Wyden and Chaffetz bills is just one way to Demand our dotRights — we shouldn’t have to pay for our cell phones with our privacy rights.

Learn more about location tracking: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page