Police Using High-Tech Devices To Steal Cell Phone Data

Thursday, 06 Mar 2014 05:47 PM

By Jason Devaney

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Police across the United States are using a new piece of technology that captures cell phone information — without the user ever knowing anything about it.

In one example, police in Tallahassee, Fla. used a device called a Stingray to track down a suspect they believed to be in possession of a stolen cell phone. Police successfully located James L. Thomas and conducted a search of his home.

During Thomas’ trial, police would not answer the question of how they determined he had the phone. When pressed by a judge, the courtroom was cleared and the police department revealed it had used a Stingray.

The case is now in the appeals process, according a Watchdog report.

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Police in New York are using Stingrays and other devices as well, according to a WGRZ television report. New York State Police admitted to using "cellular telephone tracking equipment" that cost $197,000, according to a document cited in the story.

The story also reveals that the Eric County Sheriff’s Office purchased a Stingray system in 2009, the money coming from a State Homeland Security grant.

And in the Washington, D.C. area, three police departments use cell phone tracking devices, Watchdog reports.

A USA Today story last December claimed at least 25 departments in the U.S. have a Stingray. The cost, the report says, can be as high as $400,000 for the system. Another 36 departments would not say if they use cell phone tracking systems.

"When police use invasive surveillance equipment to surreptitiously sweep up information about the locations and communications of large numbers of people, court oversight and public debate are essential," the American Civil Liberties Union told Watchdog.

The Stingray system is about the size of a suitcase. Using an antenna mounted on the roof of a vehicle, it tricks cell phones in its range into thinking it is a cell phone tower. A computer connected to the device captures a phone’s data, including call records and text messages.

Police and security agencies say the technology is essential in the fight against crime, ranging from petty theft all the way up to terrorism.

In South Carolina, police were searching for a suspect after cars were broken into, including a police vehicle, from which firearms were stolen. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott didn’t use a Stingray in the case, but he did obtain cell phone records from two towers on four occasions.

"We were looking at someone who was breaking into a lot of vehicles and was not going to stop," Lott told USA Today. "So, we had to find out as much information as we could."

Lott defended the practice, known as a data dump.

"We're not infringing on their rights," Lott said. "When they use that phone, they understand that information is going to go to a tower. We're not taking that information and using it for any means whatsoever, unless they're the bad guy or unless they're the victim."

ARS Technica wrote about several cell phone tracking devices available to law enforcement agencies last year, including the Stingray, Gossamer, Triggerfish, Kingfish, and Amberjack, along with several types of software and upgrades. The report says that a Florida company called Harris Corporation manufactures the Stingray.

The story names several federal agencies that use cell phone tracking technology, including the FBI, Secret Service, DEA, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, and others.

In the Tallahassee case, police admitted to using a Stingray 200 times since 2010 — without a warrant.

"This record makes it very clear that [Tallahassee police] were not going to get a search warrant because they had never gotten a search warrant for this technology," an appeals court judge told Watchdog.

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