Cell site simulators, or stingray devices as they’re more commonly known, have come into frequent use by domestic law enforcement agencies in recent years. Originally designed to intercept cellular calls and data in battlefield situations, the FBI is now handing out stingrays to state and local police departments in order to combat terrorism within the United States.
Turns out that’s not all police have been using stingrays for. In a report detailing Maryland law enforcement’s use of the devices, it was found that in one case Baltimore police had used a stingray to try to track down a petty criminal — a man who had stolen $50 in chicken wings.
That’s not exactly domestic terrorism.
What is a stingray device? Roughly the size of a suitcase, a stingray is a mobile tool that can be used virtually anywhere. As its more formal name, cell site simulator, implies, a stingray acts as a fake cellphone tower. In this situation, a cellphone would, instead of connecting to a legitimate tower nearby, connect to the stingray device.
From here, police can not only record calls and collect data, they can physically track the phone’s location with high accuracy.
Stingrays, however, don’t simply connect to the intended suspect’s cellphone. It forces all cellphones within a given area to be routed through the stingray — meaning police can (and almost certainly do) eavesdrop on innocent individuals without any sort of warrant.
No matter how this fact is framed, it’s hard to say it’s not a breach of Fourth Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizures.”
When these details were revealed (much to the consternation of the Justice Department, who had dramatically downplayed the true extent of the stingray’s abilities), controversy understandably erupted over the conditions around which the devices are used.
The predictable response from the Justice Department was the guarantee that stingrays would only be used in extreme circumstances — stopping a terrorist cell, for example.
Even though new information about stingrays have trickled out in recent years, major details — such as under what circumstances they are used and by which agencies — still remain largely unknown to the public. The ACLU has a list of 61 agencies across 23 states that use stingrays; the true numbers are likely much higher.
Fortunately, some information about how stingrays have actually been put to use have made their way to the public — and it turns out its not quite how the Justice Department has portrayed stingray use. A report on law enforcement’s use of stingrays in Maryland has found, as just one example, that police in Howard County have used the devices for drug cases more than for any other crime.
In Annapolis, city police saw fit to use a stingray in an attempt to track down a man suspected of robbing $56.77 worth of chicken wings and sub sandwiches from a food delivery worker. Stingrays are “supposed to be used for terrorism,” Baltimore public defender Janine Meckler says.
Have stingrays ever been used to stop terrorism? According to privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jennifer Lynch, there aren’t any known cases. “I don’t think its happened at all,” she said.
Stingray devices are, by their very nature, ripe for abuse and misuse. When a spokesman for Maryland’s Montgomery County Police admits their agency sometimes seeks court approval after they’ve been used, and when a chicken wing theft is seen as justifying their use, it’s hard to say enough is being done to reign in these powerful, invasive tools.
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