Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cellphone privacy - and the Police State

Two very interesting developments have come to light this week.

First, Federal officers have allegedly seized 'Stingray' cellphone intercept data from a Florida law enforcement agency to prevent the latter turning them over to the ACLU.

The surprise move by the U.S. Marshals Service stunned the American Civil Liberties Union, which earlier this year filed the public records request with the Sarasota, Florida, police department for information detailing its use of the controversial surveillance tool.

The ACLU had an appointment last Tuesday to review documents pertaining to a case investigated by a Sarasota police detective. But marshals swooped in at the last minute to grab the records, claiming they belong to the U.S. Marshals Service and barring the police from releasing them.

ACLU staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler called the move “truly extraordinary and beyond the worst transparency violations” the group has seen regarding documents detailing police use of the technology.

“This is consistent with what we’ve seen around the country with federal agencies trying to meddle with public requests for stingray information,” Wessler said, noting that federal authorities have in other cases invoked the Homeland Security Act to prevent the release of such records. “The feds are working very hard to block any release of this information to the public.”

Stingrays, also known as IMSI catchers, simulate a cellphone tower and trick nearby mobile devices into connecting with them, thereby revealing their location. A stingray can see and record a device’s unique ID number and traffic data, as well as information that points to its location. By moving a stingray around, authorities can triangulate a device’s location with greater precision than is possible using data obtained from a carrier’s fixed tower location.

. . .

The government has long asserted it doesn’t need a probable-cause warrant to use stingrays because the device doesn’t collect the content of phone calls and text messages, but instead operates like pen-registers and trap-and-traces, collecting the equivalent of header information. The ACLU and others argue that the devices are more invasive than a trap-and-trace.

There's more at the link.

A second report describes how Florida police went door-to-door with a portable 'Stingray' device to identify the location of a stolen cellphone.

After learning the phone's general location, Tallahassee cops deployed a vehicle-mounted stingray and cruised the streets. Verizon had already provided them with the phone's unique IMSI identifier, which told the stingray exactly which handset to track. (“Stingray” is a trademarked product manufactured by Florida-based Harris Corporation, though it has since come to be used as a generic term, like Xerox or Kleenex.)

Such searches are controversial in part because stingrays necessarily capture data about all other compatible phones nearby. Christopher Corbitt noted that the gear evaluates "all the handsets in the area" as it searches for its target. When in use, stingrays force a connected phone to transmit at full power—depleting a handset’s battery faster than normal.

"We emulate a cellphone tower,” Tallahassee investigator Corbitt told a court during his testimony about the incident. “So just as the phone was registered with the real Verizon tower, we emulate a tower; we force that handset to register with us. We identify that we have the correct handset and then we’re able to, by just merely direction-finding on the signal emanating from the handset—we’re able to determine a location.”

. . .

Such searches are common; Corbitt said he had personally used the equipment “200 or more times” and that it worked with “100 percent” accuracy.

. . .

In an interview with Ars, ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler said that having this level of detail about a stingray was highly unusual.

“I think it provides a vivid illustration of how invasive this technology is and how the courts regulate its use. It’s one thing to have a generic description of how it’s used; it’s another thing to read a first-hand account of how people are walking up to people’s doors and windows sending powerful signals to cells inside. This transcript illustrates both the fact that bystanders' phones were being tracked and that the police operating the device knew that’s what the device was doing.”

Again, more at the link.

And all this is going on without public knowledge (even though data from every single cellphone nearby is being gathered without permission or legal reason), without any search warrant, and with the Federal authorities actively trying to conceal it from the public.

What was that about 'civil rights' again?  (Cue hysterical laughter here . . . )

Did someone say 'police state'?  (If not, I damn well will . . . )



Jon said...

Makes you wonder..there have been times when my cell phone went from 100% down to 60% way too fast for normal operations. Maybe the local police were using a Stingray in the area, forcing all connected phones to broadcast at full power. hmmm

Sunnybrook Farm said...

This has to be all George Bush's fault Obama would never let this sort of thing happen.

wordlet said...

The tricky thing about the case where all of the stingray information has come from however is that the technology was used to help track down a man who raped a woman and then stole her phone. I don't think anyone could or should argue that that was an inappropriate application for the technology. I don't know anyone, and I don't want to know anyone, who would rather the location of their phone be private than find a rapist who is their neighbor.

*But* there are also a lot of situations where it can be used to violate people's privacy unnecesarily. It could be used in situations much less precise than a single apartment complex, it could be used to give probable cause in some cases where it shouldn't, and the data it gathers as part of it's use could be stored and misused for other purposes rather than immediately deleted (the same problem exists with license plate scanners).

Like most things it needs to be used carefully and with moderation.

Rolf said...

As if you didn't need yet another reason to ditch the electronic leash.