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Seal Broken by Judge Today and Now We Know How The Police Are Eavesdropping on Public With Stingray Devices

For a long while, criminal defense lawyers along with civil rights activists as well as citizens who have been arrested by law enforcement in Police Departments all over the country have known that police have been using new technology to eavesdrop on phone calls and text messages. That’s not news.

It’s been a real big concern for lots of us because while we know the device that is being used — a gizmo called a “stingray” — we haven’t known much about how law enforcement is using this listening device or what all they are grabbing in communications between people who have no idea that the police are on the line.

This is happening here in Dallas, just like in other parts of the country. For a discussion of what is going on, read our earlier posts:

This week, we all learned more about what’s going on with police and Stingrays because a federal judge in Florida was brave enough to grant a request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and he ordered an earlier hearing whose transcript had been sealed away from public view to be released to everyone. That happened today.

What’s Going On With Police and Stingrays?

First of all, there’s the gizmo. The Stingray is small and easily carried: it’s about the same size as a suitcase. Set it up, and a Stingray acts as if it is a cell tower — and your phone, my phone, any phone that’s operating nearby to the Stingray will assume that the gizmo is just another cell phone tower. It’s manufactured by a company named Harris Corporation, and you can read all about their product here – including checking out photos of Stingray devices – in an article by ArsTechnica entitled, “Meet the Machines That Steal Your Phone’s Data.

It’s been very difficult to learn about the device as well as how law enforcement has been using it because whenever the government authorities are quizzed about it, they stonewall with arguments like the information is protected by commercial trade secrets or the information cannot be shared because of the need to protect police procedures in order to serve justice. Repeated requests by the news media based upon the Freedom of Information Act in a wide variety of jurisdictions across the United States have been unsuccessful here.

Thing is – that Stingray, setting in a police car or unmarked van down the street from some suspected criminal is not only grabbing data from the targeted cell phone, it’s grabbing everything from all the other phones that are connecting with the device under the assumption that it is a valid cell tower, too.

Every single cell phone in the Stingray’s range will lock onto the Stingray instead of the usual phone company tower it would ordinarily use because the Stingray somehow directs it to do so.

Now, a Florida case is shedding a lot more light on what is happening. And it’s very troubling from not only a criminal defense perspective, but from a civil rights viewpoint as well.

All of us, everyone who uses a cell phone in this country, needs to know what is happening here.

June 2014 Florida Case Revelations on Police Stingray Use

Yesterday, the Honorable Judge James Hankinson, who presides over the Second Circuit Court setting in Tallahassee, Florida, and a former federal prosecutor, ordered the public release of information surrounding the use of a Stingray by the Tallahassee Police Department.

As they have done countless times before, the authorities had successfully argued that the hearing on the evidence itself should be closed to the public and the resulting transcript of the proceedings sealed from review in the public record. Arguments against sharing this information with the American public include assorted federal laws including the Homeland Security Act.

What has happened is the judge has granted the motion of the ACLU to break that seal on the hearing transcript so the public can read it. The ACLU has argued that the First Amendment overrides the government’s arguments for secrecy here, plus the government has waived its Stingray arguments because of past revelations about using the gizmo, and the judge agreed. The hearing transcript was released.  [Read the full transcript here.]

From this newly released transcript, we now know:

  • Tallahassee law enforcement were using a Stingray in their investigation of an individual who they suspected of illegal activity
  • Tallahassee police had no warrant to search or seize anything from this individual
  • The police were using the Stingray to track the man’s cell phone
  • They used two Stingrays in this case: one in a police car, while another gizmo was carried by an officer by hand
  • The police drove the car-held Stingray around the community until they zeroed in on the apartment complex where the suspect’s phone was located by the Stingray
  • Once they figured out the apartment complex, they used the second Stingray with an officer rambling around the complex — get this — where the officer literally STOOD AT EVERY DOOR AND WINDOW with the device until the Stingray revealed in which apartment the targeted phone was to be found

What You Need to Know About Stingrays and Police – Read This, Please

From the transcript released in Florida today, important information on how these invasive devises are being used by police departments has been revealed. It’s shocking. We know:

  • The Stingray will “emulate a cellphone tower.”
  • The Stingray will “force” the cellphone to reveal its location and individual identification to the Stingray and not the standard cell phone tower.
  • The Stingray will push the the phone to work at full speed, sending info as fast as it can.
  • The Stingray cannot pinpoint a specific phone to target; therefore, all the phones in the area are going to connecting with the Stingray too, also assuming that the Stingray is the cell phone tower to be used.
  • The Stingray grabs lots and lots of information this way, because it’s grabbing information on every cell phone that it has tricked into connecting with it.

Things to take away from this:

  • If your phone is losing battery life fast, then you may have a Stingray in the area.
  • The police had an officer roaming around an apartment complex, throwing electrical junk into home after home after home, uninvited, without warning, without knowledge of the occupants, gathering lots and lots of info of people who had zip to do with their investigation while they were using their hand-held Stingray. So, if you see an officer roaming around doors and windows of your neighborhood, or your condo complex, then maybe he or she is using a Stingray.
  • This is happening all the time. Tallahassee police admitted in the hearing that their Stingrays had been used over 200 times in a three year period. That’s about once a week.

From the ACLU blog post today:

“The judge’s decision to release the transcript demonstrates that the government’s attempts to hide basic information about stingray surveillance from the public are unreasonable. The decision is also a rejection of the federal government’s attempts to meddle in state public records matters (in this case, the FBI had asked the local prosecutor to keep the transcript secret, even though this was purely a local investigation).
“When police engage in invasive tracking of our locations and communications, it is crucial that the public have access to accurate information so it can participate in an informed debate. The release of this transcript serves that goal.”

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