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The More You Know: Stingrays

Posted by Sara Cooper | Jun 02, 2023 | 0 Comments

What are Stingrays?

Stingrays or more officially known as cell-site simulators or IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers are electronic devices that emits to cell phones as a posing cell tower in order to access consumers' data. A targeted phone will be tracked with its IMSI number (located in the SIM card of a phone) and assessed using a stingray, but other constituents' phones and their information will also be collected regardless of suspicion of a crime, violating constitutional rights. The amount of stingrays used in the United States is underrepresented due to many agencies purchasing the devices in not the typical budgetary process for their departments and using them in secrecy.

Who uses Stingrays?

They were originally used by the military and federal agencies for tracking down crime, hacking, and other threats that were deemed to be towards the country. Now, both local and state police departments use cell-site simulators in their work, varying state by state. Click here for more information on which states use cell-site simulators. These “digital analyzers” are bought by two corporations: Florida-based Harris Corporation and Digital Receiver Technology (DRT), who also make dirtboxes which are airborne simulators used on aircraft. Common purposes for federal officials to use Stingrays include anything classified as protests (i.e. student marches, Black Lives Matter events, permitted, nonviolent protests), drug investigations, and immigration sectors such as ICE. In theory, this might seem as a useful tool when imminent danger to society has been notified to law enforcement and can make the investigation process much easier. Though, sensitive information of innocent individuals get caught up in disorganized and unjust work that goes beyond the public's control.

How does shift in the way surveillance operates?

Even if an event or business is in need of a broader cell network, the amount of these stingrays is growing. Recognition in these towers is poorly mandated, and lawmakers have not approved legislation to change that. It is intentional that these devices are not educated to those are not using them, and invading data of citizens that were not a part of these investigations really calls attention to national security. The vagueness in how they are used in investigations and what is discovered implies the lack of discretion towards our privacy is no longer seen as a right and rather collateral damage. It can create more opportunities for acceptable surveillance to be only applicable to any militarized organization or counterintelligence program.

What's its relation to the Fourth Amendment?

With the usage of Stingrays since the 1990's, warrants were formerly not required to obtain in order to deploy a Stingray for their purpose to detect those under investigation until the mid 2000's. This violates the Fourth Amendment for conducting searches without a warrant without reasonable suspicion, even with updated legislation in California for the necessity of a warrant for using a cell-site simulator for a specific person or group. This is because cell-site simulators are still used without the public's knowledge and are prioritized as primal technology equipment for most situations. For emergencies that would have the court order issued afterwards, the circumstances are inconclusive but are not limited. A big problem that has backlogged and dismissed the oversight of these devices is due to the non-disclosure agreements that federal agencies sign when receiving Stingrays, and for many local governments, having this technology suspected of being misused can only be done if it is criminally prosecuted. This can still be declared as unclear due to the Fourth Amendment's reasonableness doctrine, having a narrow scope on the intentions for using the cell-site simulators.

In what ways does this affect the general public?

Most people do not know what these cell-site simulators are let alone know if they are having their information taken away by law enforcement. Once your phone is contacted by a stingray, your IMSI number is automatically in the device's system to later be connected when your phone, computer, etc. interacts with a false cell tower. You can be in various places such as a grocery store, in an area where it requests your phone to downgrade from 4G to 2G (even if your phone denies it, your ISMI number can be located, and many places still have 2G networks), or even just passing by a random street. Information that can be accessed includes texts, calls, emails, and even flag the phone with malware that negates its security. Stingrays have also been known to not let 911 calls be accepted as phones are under official cell towers which can lead to danger for public health and safety.

What does the future of Stingrays look like?

Organizations such as ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation have sued the FBI and several police departments for the lack of transparency of not releasing reports and other documents of cases that had stingrays involved. Cases were often dropped to keep stingrays in secrecy, and this has led to these actors in this ongoing development of surveillance to be under scope. Their argument was that publicizing critical information can attract individuals to obtain countersurveillance methods to oppose the effectiveness of Stingrays. Whether you dislike signing those contracts for apps you use your phone or feel the need for law enforcement to be in public settings such as universities, not being informed of when your electronic privacy is compromised by stingrays, this can carry onto the corrupt power that technology has which most of us can't do anything about.

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