It was described recently by one rights group as a “secretive new surveillance tool.” But documents just released by the FBI suggest that a clandestine cellphone tracking device known as the “Stingray” has been deployed across the United States for almost two decades—despite questions over its legality.
Stingrays, as I’ve reported here before, are portable surveillance gadgets that can trick phones within a specific area into hopping onto a fake network. The feds call them “cell-site simulators” or “digital analyzers,” and they are sometimes also described as “IMSI catchers.” The FBI says it uses them to target criminals and help track the movements of suspects in real time, not to intercept communications. But because Stingrays by design collaterally gather data from innocent bystanders’ phones and can interrupt phone users’ service, critics say they may violate a federal communications law.
A fresh trove of FBI files on cell tracking, some marked “secret,” was published this week by the Electronic Privacy Information Center. They shed light on how, far from being a “new” tool used by the authorities to track down targets, Stingray-style technology has been in the hands of the feds since about 1995 (at least). During that time, local and state law enforcement agencies have also been able to borrow the spy equipment in “exceptional circumstances,” thanks to an order approved by former FBI Director Louis Freeh.
EPIC, a civil liberties group, obtained the documents through ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation that it is pursuing in order to get the feds to hand over some 25,000 pages of documents that relate to Stingray tools, about 6,000 of which are classified. The FBI has been drip-releasing the documents monthly, and there have been a couple of interesting nuggets in the batches so far—like a disclosure that the FBI has a manual called “cell tracking for dummies” and details hinting that the feds are well aware the use of Stingrays is in shaky legal territory...