Dan O’Dea, MJLST Staffer
One of the most effective investigatory tools in law enforcement has operated behind a veil of secrecy for over 15 years. “StingRay” cell phone tower simulators are used by law enforcement agencies to locate and apprehend violent offenders, track persons of interest, monitor crowds when intelligence suggests threats, and intercept signals that could activate devices. When passively operating, StingRays mimic cell phone towers, forcing all nearby cell phones to connect to them, while extracting data in the form of metadata calls, text messages, internet traffic, and location information, even when a connected phone is powered off. They can also inject spying software into phones and prevent phones from accessing cellular data. StingRays were initially used overseas by federal law enforcement agencies to combat terrorism, before spreading into the hands of the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, and now are actively used by local law enforcement agencies in 27 states to solve everything from missing persons cases to thefts of chicken wings.
The use of StingRay devices is highly controversial due to their intrusive nature. Not only does the use of StingRays raise privacy concerns, but tricking phones into connecting to StingRays mimicking cell phone towers prevent accessing legitimate cell phone service towers, which can obstruct access to 911 and other emergency hotlines. Perplexingly, the use of StingRay technology by law enforcement is almost entirely unregulated. Local law enforcement agencies frequently cite secrecy agreements with the FBI and the need to protect an investigatory tool as a means of denying the public information about how StingRays operate, and criminal defense attorneys have almost no means of challenging their use without this information. While the Department of Justice now requires federal agents obtain a warrant to use StingRay technology in criminal cases, an exception is made for matters relating to national security, and the technology may have been used to spy on racial-justice protestors during the Summer of 2020 under this exception. Local law enforcement agencies are almost completely unrestricted in their use of StingRays, and may even conceal their use in criminal prosecutions by tagging their findings as those of a “confidential source,” rather than admitting the use of a controversial investigatory tool. Doing so allows prosecutors to avoid battling 4th amendment arguments characterizing data obtained by StingRays as unlawful search and seizure.
After existing in a “legal no-man’s land” since the technology’s inception, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Ted Lieu (D-HI) sought to put an end to the secrecy of StingRays through introducing the Cell-Site Simulator Warrant Act of 2021 in June of 2021. The bill would have mandated that law enforcement agencies obtain a warrant to investigate criminal activity before deploying StingRay technology while also requiring law enforcement agencies to delete data of phones other than those of investigative targets. Further, the legislation would have required agencies to demonstrate a need to use StingRay technology that outweighs any potential harm to the community impacted by the technology. Finally, the bill would have limited authorized use of StingRay technology to the minimum amount of time necessary to conduct an investigation. However, the Cell-Site Simulator Warrant Act of 2021 appears to have died in committee after failing to garner significant legislative support.
Ultimately, no device with the intrusive capabilities of StingRays should be allowed to operate free from the constraints of regulation. While StingRays are among the most effective tools utilized by law enforcement, they are also among the most intrusive into the privacy of the general public. It logically follows that agencies seeking to operate StingRays should be required to make a showing of a need to utilize such an intrusive investigatory tool. In certain situations, it may be easy to establish the need to deploy a StingRay, such as doing so to further the investigation of a missing persons case. In others, law enforcement agencies would correctly find their hands tied should they wish to utilize a StingRay to catch a chicken wing thief.