The “Stingray”, Government’s New Tracking and Surveillance Tool

Have you ever heard of a “stingray”? No, not the kind that swims around in the ocean, but the kind that can be used by the government to track your every move, down to a few meters. If not, you aren’t alone. And the ACLU alleges there is a very good reason for this—that the government doesn’t want you to know about stingrays so they can continue using them with little oversight.

According to the blog of the ACLU, they and Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed what’s called an amicus brief with the courts concerning a little-known piece of technology called an “IMSI catcher”, or better known as a “stingray”.

These devices are used by law enforcement to track individuals. But they are far different from using someone’s phone to track them via GPS. What makes them different is that they are extremely accurate, able to pinpoint someone’s location within a few meters, meaning you could be tracked as you move from one room in your home to another. Also, these devices act as their own cellular network. So, if the police use it against their suspect, or target, they will also be able to track everyone in that person’s vicinity. Finally, the stingray doesn’t only provide benign location information; the technology exists for it to capture content—including text messages and web traffic on a device.

The ACLU is using the case of Daniel Rigmaiden in their amicus brief. Rigmaiden was charged with filing fraudulent tax returns. The federal government used a stingray in their investigation, and the ACLU says they weren’t completely honest in their pursuit and request of a warrant. It wasn’t as if the government lied, they just withheld some information.

“The government in Rigmaiden’s case acknowledges that using the stingray was a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. So far so good. But then it claims that it got a “warrant” to authorize the search. The problem, however, is that the papers the government submitted to get the so-called “warrant” never told the judge that the government wanted to use a stingray (or IMSI catcher, or cell site emulator), what the device is, or how it works. In other words, the government hid from the judge the facts that stingrays collect information about third parties, that they can pinpoint targets even within their homes, and that some models capture content, not just location.”

This was crucial information needed for the court to make a proper decision in granting the warrant, argues the ACLU. Without it, the judge had no way of knowing the extent of potential intrusion into a suspect’s privacy that was about to take place.

“Judges are not rubber stamps—they are constitutional safeguards of our privacy.” And the government shouldn’t be trying to get one by them.

If you are charged with a crime or have reason to believe you are under investigation for a criminal offense, contact us today. We can put you in contact with a local defense lawyer that can help you understand the charges against you, your legal options, and your rights. 

About David Matson