You can add the Northern CA Bay Area to the growing list of U.S. citizens falling victim to America’s ever-growing — more-likely-than-not illegal — surveillance state. Newly released documents obtained through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests reportedly reveal the widespread use of so-called StringRay devices in California by 9 law enforcement agencies across the Bay area allowing them to gather everyone’s cell phone data in dragnet fashion.
The StingRay device, manufactured by the Harris Corporation, is a troubling tracking device that mimics cell phone towers by tricking wireless tools on the same network and making the tools communicate with the StingRay device, allowing law enforcement agencies to collect data on innocent third parties in a certain radius that are not subject to any investigation. The documents, originally obtained by Sacramento News 10, reveal that the devices are capable of pinpointing targets of investigations with extreme precision, even when they are inside their homes.
Some agencies provided documentation to Sacramento News 10, but none would provide details on how StringRays work or admit to having them, but records show that at least seven Northern CA agencies have the technology and two more have received grants to buy them in 2014. The San Jose Police Department responded to Sacramento News 10’s request with documentation revealing insight into what agencies have the technology and why they want it. San Jose PD requested feedback from other agencies that were already using StingRay when a 2012 grant to the Bay Area Urban Shield initiative (UASI) was approved.
JUSTIFYING DRAGNET SURVEILLANCE AS FIGHTING TERRORISM
Unsurprisingly, terrorism was used as the primary justification for acquiring the StingRay technology in every grant application obtained by Sacramento News 10 because it could allegedly be used to track and disrupt terrorist networks and protect critical infrastructure, but documents obtained also reveal the “mission creep” – an extremely common phenomenon that occurs when one purpose is offered to justify the collection of data on everyone in the surrounding radius that is used for a myriad of other purposes than fighting terror – is prevalent and normal.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported that the StingRay devices, which were reported by the Wall Street Journal as being used by the Federal government in 2011, are highly obtrusive and completely unregulated and once again we are seeing the proliferations of powerful new surveillance tools without any rules on constraints on their use. Making matters worse is the fact that the acquisition of the StingRay devices by local Bay Area law enforcement agencies is shrouded in secrecy and driven by federal grant money, which undermines any local democratic oversight. Despite the fallacious claims that these devices are being used to “fight terrorism,” local law enforcement agencies appear to be using them for ordinary criminal law enforcement.
Some of the devices sold to law enforcement agencies are allegedly not configured to capture all the communications of everyone, but many of them can be used for illegally eavesdropping on everyone in violation of their privacy and there are real questions as to whether or not the devices can ever be used in a constitutional fashion because they are the equivalent of dragnet “general searches” which are prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. Of course there is very little Case Law on the subject that specifically addresses how and under what circumstances StingRays can be used and currently there are no statutes or regulations addressing their use.