If you’re not already familiar with the Stingray cell phone tracking device, let me give you the quick-and-dirty: It’s a device that spoofs cell towers, tricking your phone into connecting to it, and providing law enforcement with information about your whereabouts (and potentially a great deal more). There’s not a great deal of information available about these devices so it’s hard to say exactly what they can do, who’s using them, and what they’re using them for.
What we do know is that some folks are working very, very hard to keep the use of Stingrays a secret. We know this because, recently in Sarasota Florida, an FOIA request had been filed to force the police to provide some specifics about Stingrays.The local head of the ACLU, Michael Barfield contacted SPD officer Michael Jackson, who confirmed that he had sole custody of the Stingray records, and set up an appointment for those records to be reviewed. Then it gets very, very weird.
Sarasota’s assistant city attorney contacted Barfield by email and stated that the city had been :
“instructed not to release the documents requested, as any ‘tap and trace’ orders kept by Special Deputy US Marshal Jackson pursuant to his duties with the Marshals Service belong to the Marshals Service.”
If you’re scratching your head here, you’re not the only one. The U.S. Marshals rushed in and deputized Officer Jackson, and then took the records in question. At which time, the city claimed that it had never had the records as they had always been in the custody of U.S. Marshals.
This move is likely about as legal as the NDAs that law enforcement agencies sign when they buy Stingrays. Just like a non-disclosure agreement doesn’t magically trump laws pertaining to law enforcement, making a police officer what amounts to an honorary federal marshal doesn’t get Sarasota off the hook for producing legally required documents. Of course, when it’s law enforcement playing fast and loose with the laws, holding them accountable can be problematic.
These extraordinary efforts to keep Stingrays shrouded in mystery makes me wonder: Would it be possible for cell phones to detect when they’re connected to a Stingray rather than a cell tower? If not, would it be possible to create a device that would detect Stingrays? If the answer to either of those is “yes”, I hope that someone far more clever than I is already working on the problem.