A local Georgia news station has confirmed its County Police department is operating more than one ‘Stingray’ device.
A USA Today investigation published late last year first revealed that at least 25 police departments across the country own and operate whats been dubbed a “Stingray.” Stingrays are portable devices that mimic a cell tower and trick nearby cell phones to connect to it.
The Stingray then captures the connected devices’ data, allowing law enforcement to track users’ locations. They are relatively small and easily transportable.
The ACLU has identified 46 agencies in 18 states and the District of Columbia that own stingrays, but because many agencies continue to shroud their purchase and use of stingrays in secrecy, much is still unknown regarding the use of stingrays by law enforcement agencies nationwide.
“I think what people are most concerned about is this idea that prosecutors in particular out there dredging for information almost like a shrimp boat,” said Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter. “We’re not that way. We hunt rather than fish. We have individual targets that are suspects in crimes and we use the data on that individual, and we don’t look at anything else,” Porter said.
Porter says he and other Georgia district attorneys get court approval before authorizing local police to track a cell phone, unlike other jurist dictions. Yet those court orders are sealed.
Even criminal defense attorneys were unaware Gwinnett County Police were using fake cell towers here for years, in large part because that information was kept from them by prosecutors.
“Surprising wouldn’t be the right word. It’s shocking,” said Robert Booker, a defense attorney in Gwinnett County. He had never heard of the Stingray or other cell tower emulators before we told him the county authorized spending more than $400,000 on the spy systems.
DA Porter says a confidentiality agreement with Harris Corporation, the manufacturer of the Stingray, prohibits him and his assistant prosecutors from revealing the existence of the fake cell towers, even in a court of law. “Because of contractual obligations as well as certain other legal obligations,” Porter said, “the disclosure of the existence of that cell tower emulator for location purposes is forbidden.”
Porter said the manufacturer could repossess the machines or simply stop servicing them if the police and prosecutors revealed they were using them. He’s one of the first prosecutors in the nation to go on the record talking about the existence of the Stingray, though he never mentioned the device or manufacturer by name in our interview.
Florida law enforcement agencies, some of the first of adopt the technology, have stonewalled public records requests by the American Civil Liberties Union about its use, Watchdog.org previously reported. This culminated with US Marshals raiding the offices of police in Sarasota to confiscate Stingray records in order to prevent their release.
“We’ve seen police departments refusing to confirm or deny whether they have any records related to this technology, which is the kind of response we usually see from the NSA,” said Nathan Wessler with the ACLU in New York. “It’s a complete end-run around that whole concept of transparency. To make a secret agreement with a private corporation to hold back those records – that’s just not allowed.”
Gwinnett County Police referred local reporters to the FBI, who claimed an exemption from public records rules under a Georgia law that protects sensitive Homeland Security information.
“But they’re not being used for Homeland Security investigations,” the ACLU’s Wessler said. “They’re being used for all the run of the mill investigations that our local police engage in, from homicide all the way down through robbery.”
District Attorney Porter confirmed that criminal investigation is the primary use of the Stingray here. He said his office is changing its internal policy, and will soon file to unseal court orders approving the use of a cell tower emulator once the case heads to prosecution, but he still isn’t telling defense attorneys he used a Stingray device.
“We tell you that we get a court a order that allowed us to ping the location of your phone. We don’t tell you exactly how we did that,” Porter said.
Local news coverage:
The Supreme Court has ruled using GPS devices to track people without warrants is unconstitutional. They have ruled that warrantless cellphone searches are unconstitutional. But they have not particularly looked at warantless cellphone tracking.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals however, ruled last year that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy over their location data. The decision states that location data is a “business record” created by private companies with the implicit consent of cell phone users and therefore are not subject to privacy protections.
The rationale was that cell phone companies are not required by the government to create or retain this data and that citizens are not required by the government to carry or use cell phones, thus making this data subject to the Third Party Doctrine and removing any expectation of privacy.
A ruling in June of this year, from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, contradicted that ruling finding that police “must obtain a warrant before collecting cellphone location data.” The opinion affirms that acquiring records of what cell towers a phone is connected to, and when it was connected to them, constitutes a Fourth Amendment search.
In its reasoning, the court noted that while the Fourth Amendment has traditionally been applied to property rights, it’s gradually expanded to protect much more, including communications.
“In the 20th century, a second view gradually developed,” the court writes, “that is, that the Fourth Amendment guarantee protects the privacy rights of the people without respect to whether the alleged ‘search’ constituted a trespass against property rights.”
While the 11th Circuit ruling won’t overturn the Fifth Circuit ruling because of their separate jurisdictions, it adds critical precedent to a privacy question that’s still far from decided across the country.
To see the police departments in your state that have been documented using stingrays CLICK HERE.