“Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device.”
U.S. District Judge William Pauley
Last month, U.S. District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan ruled that the rights of a defendant had been violated when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used such a device without a warrant to locate his apartment.
The StingRay is a cellular phone surveillance device — manufactured by Harris Corporation — initially developed for the military and intelligence community.
When operating in active mode, the device mimics a wireless carrier cell tower in order to force all nearby mobile phones and other cellular data devices to connect to it.
The Stingray can achieve far more than simply tracking and locating the cellular device user.
The device has the ability [Wikipedia] to perform the following:
Extracting stored data such as International Mobile Subscriber Identity (“IMSI”) numbers and Electronic Serial Number (“ESN”)
Writing cellular protocol metadata to internal storage
Forcing an increase in signal transmission power
Forcing an abundance of radio signals to be transmitted
Interception of communications content
Conducting a denial of service attack
Encryption key extraction
Radio jamming for either general denial of service purposes or to aid in active mode protocol rollback attacks
But in truth, the capabilities of these devices are not really known, as many US judges have found out. The INTERCEPT published an important piece:
Information on such purchases, like so much about cell-site simulators, has trickled out through freedom of information requests and public records.
The capabilities of the devices are kept under lock and key — a secrecy that hearkens back to their military origins.
When state or local police purchase the cell-site simulators, they are routinely required to sign non-disclosure agreements with the FBI that they may not reveal the “existence of and the capabilities provided by” the surveillance devices, or share “any information” about the equipment with the public.
Indeed, while several of the devices in the military catalogue obtained by The Intercept are actively deployed by federal and local law enforcement agencies, according to public records, judges have struggled to obtain details of how they work.
There seems to be no doubts that the use of such technologies, developed for the Intelligence Community, for Police work must be carefully regulated. At the same time, it seems obvious that these technologies play an important role in the fight against terrorists. One may wonder if the Brussels attacks could have been thwarted… But that is another story.