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The Government Keeps ‘Stingray’ IMSI Catchers Secret

The Government Keeps ‘Stingray’ IMSI Catchers Secret

by Drew CordellJanuary 11, 2015

Many people worry about the government’s use of IMSI catchers or cell site simulators. These devices are commonly called “Stingrays” after a device manufactured by the Harris Corporation, IMSI catchers appear to be legitimate cell phone towers, tricking phones nearby to connect to the Stingray, which permits tracking the phone’s location in real time. Not only are the devices invasive, but the government has not disclosed much information about how and when they use these devices.

Also read: OTR Team Strikes Again with Dagstuhl Privacy Preserving Presence Protocol P (DP5)

Federal Agencies Keep Stingrays Secret

Harris CorporationLaw enforcement has been very discreet about the details of stingrays and actively sought to protect those secrets. In a lot of public records requests, the public learned that Harris Corporation requires law enforcement to sign a non-disclosure agreement promising not to reference Stingrays. In addition to the non-disclosure agreement, federal agencies have told local cities and police to keep details of Stingrays secret. The US Marshals have physically intervened to keep information from going public. Police agencies across the country have hidden their use of IMSI catchers from judges that provide police oversight.

In Sarasota, Florida internal police emails revealed that officers hid their use of Stingrays from judges. One officer withdrew a warrant affidavit that mentioned an IMSI catcher.

Judges in Tacoma, Washington signed over 170 orders that unknowingly authorized Stingray use from 2009 to 2014. Judges learned that they were approving IMSI catchers from local newspapers.

In a case in Baltimore, Maryland, prosecutors were forced to abandon their use of Stingray evidence after a judge threatened to hold a police officer in contempt for refusing to testify about the IMSI catcher.

In a report by the Wall Street Journal, a secret US Marshals surveillance program was revealed. The program attaches IMSI catchers named “DRTboxes” to airplanes to track suspects, though they also gather data from a much larger number of innocent people in the process, all without anyone knowing. The WSJ report prompted a letter from US senators to the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security demanding information.

Though they are heavily unregulated, Stingrays will likely have strict rules and regulations in 2015 due to the highly invasive nature of the devices. IMSI catchers are dangerous and breach the privacy of anyone that is unfortunate enough to be by one when the police are using it.

Images from Harris Corporation and Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Eugene Wang

    Time to lobby for a bill that forbids government agencies from signing NDA’s. Who’s with me?