The FBI has used sophisticated cellphone tracking equipment to pinpoint callers’ locations and listen in to private conversations without warrant for at least the past five years, an Arizona Federal court learned last week.
The FBI was forced to reveal how it uses a surveillance device called “Stingray” to intercept cellphone information by mimicking a communications tower during testimony in the case of Daniel David Rigmaiden.
Rigmaiden was accused of stealing millions of dollars by filing phony tax returns on the basis of identity theft. Authorities tracked him down in 2008 by locating the 3G card he was using as a modem with Stingray.
During a public testimony last week, FBI officials admitted that the technology is often used to monitor unwitting Americans without a warrant; instead, they justify the warrantless spying as a “tap and trace” order. Traditionally, however, “tap and trace” orders are issued only to allow investigators to collect so-called “metadata” such as phone numbers calling to or called from a particular number.
An amicus brief filed in the case by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls into question the government’s right to violate Americans’ rights with technology with capabilities of which most judges are likely unaware.
“The government cannot obtain judicial approval for a search using sophisticated, uniquely invasive technology that it never explained to the magistrate,” reads the brief.
“To construe this Order as a valid ‘warrant’ authorizing the use of the stingray would prevent magistrates from making informed determinations on warrant applications and encourage the government to keep magistrates in the dark.”
The ACLU argues that the Stingray technology is powerful enough to search items in a suspect’s home and decipher communications, so a warrant is needed for its use. Another issue brought up by the civil liberties organizations is that the broad net cast when the Stingray is used also gathers the mobile data of innocent people in the surrounding area.
“Judicial supervison of searches is most needed when the government uses new technologies to embark into new and unknown privacy intrusions. But when the government hides what it’s really doing, it removes this important check on government power,” said the EFF in a statement.
“We hope the court sees its been duped, and makes clear to the government that honesty and a warrant are requirements to using a Stingray.”