Police forces across the nation are following the lead of the National Security Administration (NSA) by employing advanced technology, like that known as Stingray, for cell phone monitoring. The FBI and other federal investigative teams, as well as at least 25 state and local police agencies, now report that they have and use Stingray technology, which allows them to tap into cell phone data in real time. Additional agencies are able to access the technology through sharing agreements. Several dozen other police agencies have refused to acknowledge whether they employ such a device.
Stingray acts essentially as a mobile cell phone tower. It is about the size of a suitcase and can be attached to a vehicle. As it moves through a neighborhood, it will pick up cell phone activity in the area and feeding it to police. While it cannot pick up specific conversation or text content, it can easily identify the location and direction of calls and texts, even when a cell phone is not in use. The device is quite costly with a price tag of about $400,000, but federal government funds can be accessed to pick up the tab in most cases in the form of anti-terrorism grants.
A second tactic for police monitoring of cell phone activity is known as the “tower dump.” This tactic is used far more frequently, with about 25 percent of local and state police forces acknowledging they have employed it in their work. A tower dump can also provide information about calls, identity and location to police by accessing information collected through one or more cell phone towers in a given area at a particular time, but requires police to go through a wireless provider to gather that information, unlike the Stingray device.
As more and more police agencies follow in the footsteps of the NSA employing cell phone monitoring devices like Stingray, issues relating to rights of privacy as well as Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure are arising.While most police agencies report that devices like the Stingray are directed at a specifically targeted individual suspect, and primarily toward locating that suspect, concerns about the use of data gathered about unsuspecting innocents in the area are raising new questions of law in the wake of this and other advancing technology. The FBI officially states that any information they gather through the use of the Stingray that is unrelated to the suspect they are targeting is immediately deleted.
Tower dumps and Stingrays can both be utilized to gather information without a warrant in most states. Those concerned about privacy and search and seizure issues cite the fact that this type of information gathering does, in fact, penetrate walls and should therefore be subject to investigation only through the use of a warrant. One response to those concerns has been that since actual conversations and text content are not being intercepted, but rather basic information only about calls made and location, a warrant is not needed. Other questions arise out of the notion of whether there is a realistic expectation of privacy as to such information related to the use of a cell phone.
Courts will almost certainly be facing a great increase in the number of cases involving the utilization of tower dumps and Stingray devices. Questions of the legality of the use of Stingray devices and other cell phone monitoring devices will have to be hashed out among judges, law enforcement and lawmakers as more police agencies follow the NSA’s lead in employing them.
By Michele Wessel