While the mass surveillance of U.S. citizens conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA) is fairly well-known, many Americans may be shocked to find out their local police force may have the same invasive powers.
Across the country, local and state police departments have set up “Stingray” surveillance systems to track and collect data from any cellphone within the system’s reach. Stingrays—metallic boxes the size of a large suitcase—work by acting as an arbiter between your cellphone and the nearest cellphone tower, collecting private data from any phone within reach without their owners’ knowledge and without prejudice to who is under investigation. One security expert compared it to a popular swimming game: “the [Stingray] says ‘Marco’, and every cellphone in the area says ‘Polo.’”
Police are frequently arming themselves with the same privacy-violating gadgets the NSA has used to invade the rights of the citizens they swear to protect. While Stingrays are supposed to only be utilized in the name of fighting terrorism, the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports the technology is used “for any investigation imaginable,” ranging from drug arrests to murder. The EFF even goes so far as comparing the systems to “general warrants” from the Colonial Era, when British troops could search entire neighborhoods without a stated reason or expressed consent.
By collecting the metadata and location of cellphones within the reach of the Stingray, these police forces are collecting not just the data of any supposed suspect, but of entire neighborhoods. This is the exact mass surveillance done in the name of fighting terrorism that has allowed the NSA to keep up its indiscriminate harvesting of cellphone data.
Police are frequently arming themselves with the same privacy-violating gadgets the NSA has used to invade the rights of the citizens they swear to protect.
Despite President Obama’s assurance that the NSA is never “cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens,” many cases have come to light through leaks provided by Edward Snowden that show abuses created by this mass surveillance mentality—the same mentality now finding its way into police departments.
Documents provided by Snowden show the program is used far outside of the anti-terror purposes that supposedly justify it (even though the program is “screamingly illegal”). The Drug Enforcement Agency, for example, has sourced the NSA’s cellphone tracking capabilities to fight the War on Drugs in Mexico and the Bahamas—the latter program leading the NSA to record every cellphone call to or from the island nation. More damning are the documents showing NSA agents tracking down ex-lovers, with one agent spying on nine different women—all while using technology supposedly meant to fight terrorists.
And much like the NSA’s metadata program, local police never ask for a warrant when using the Stingray devices. Considering these systems can not only find the location of a particular cellphone but must hijack the phone’s systems to do it, it stands to reason Stingrays fall under the recent Supreme Court decision banning the warrantless search of cellphones by authorities.
Police have been fairly bold in excusing themselves and Stingrays from needing a warrant, however. When a local judges asked a Tallahassee police department why they used the system more than 200 times in the last four years, the department cited a confidentiality agreement it signed with other law enforcement agencies—including the FBI—and the Harris Corporation, the manufacturer of Stingrays.
In much the same way the Patriot Act has outlived the emergency status of the U.S. immediately after 9/11, these systems are obviously being used outside of emergencies.
Despite this, the ACLU was able to identify hundreds of police stations across 18 states that use the systems, all under the auspices of anti-terror programs funded by the Patriot Act. And while that law’s expansive powers have been the subject of debate amongst privacy experts for nearly 14 years, police aren’t even following the orders of the federal agencies funding this technology under the Patriot Act.
When the Los Angeles Police Department received funding for Stingrays from the Department of Homeland Security back in 2012, it was instructed by the DHS to use them for “regional terrorism investigations.” But in documents obtained by the First Amendment Coalition, it was revealed the LAPD had used the systems in far more routine investigations. Stingrays were actually employed in 13 percent of all cellphone-related investigations by the department.
And it is not just police forces who’ve deceived the federal government on Stingrays. While the Harris Corporation states its systems are Federal Communications Commission-approved, this might be because the communications company fibbed to the FCC about the intended use of the Stingrays.
In an email from a Harris employee to the commission, the employer expressed concern that “it sounds as if there is some confusion about the purpose of the equipment” and assured the FCC “the purpose is only to provide state/local law enforcement officials with authority to utilize this equipment in emergency situations.”
If police will be as eager to use spying equipment as they are to use their new toys from the military, the issue may soon force itself in the worst way.
In much the same way the Patriot Act has outlived the emergency status of the U.S. immediately after 9/11, these systems are obviously being used outside of emergencies. One could not fathom the likelihood that Tallahassee, in the case above, faced 200 emergency terror threats in just four years, demanding the usage of such invasive surveillance systems.
Despite this, the use of Stingray systems shows no major court challenge and has failed to draw much mainstream ire—perhaps due to a lack of much media attention or the public’s general apathy towards privacy issues. What their use continued use means, however, is we may be seeing the beginning of a flood of surveillance technologies entering law enforcement the same way we’ve seen hand-me-down Humvees and military riot gear passed on to departments across the country. If police will be as eager to use spying equipment as they are to use their new toys from the military, the issue may soon force itself in the worst way.
What this exuberance shows is not just a complete disregard of the regulations of the federal government or the Fourth Amendment rights, which protect all U.S. citizens from illegal search and seizure. With police abuse cases—from Ferguson to Staten Island to Cleveland—continuing to raise questions about the apparent immunity of law enforcement from the same laws we hire them to enforce, it is of tantamount importance we do not ignore the trickle-down of such tactics from the NSA to your local department.
Photo via West Midlands Police/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)