Following the first ever congressional hearing on “Stingray” cellphone surveillance, new details reveal the Secret Service and the Internal Revenue Service are also using the controversial spying devices.
At a congressional hearing last Wednesday, officials with the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security released new details about the federal government’s use of “Stingray” cellphone surveillance. Stingrays, also known as cell site simulators, constitute another example of military tools finding their way into the hands of federal agencies and local police departments across the United States.
“The Stingray is a brand name of an IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) Catcher targeted and sold to law enforcement. A Stingray works by masquerading as a cellphone tower – to which your mobile phone sends signals to every 7 to 15 seconds whether you are on a call or not – and tricks your phone into connecting to it. As a result, the government can figure out who, when and to where you are calling, the precise location of every device within the range, and with some devices, even capture the content of your conversations.”
Elana Tyrangiel, a deputy assistant attorney at the Justice Department, told lawmakers the particular cell site simulators employed by the DOJ do not collect the content of calls. The devices do, however, collect location and the number being dialed.
Much of the discussion at the hearing centered around the use of warrants. In early September, the Justice Department announced rules about how the department will handle the use of Stingrays, including new warrant requirements. After the rules were announced, Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking member on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, challenged the warrant exemptions and the overall effectiveness of the rules. According to the District Sentinel, Leahy stated, “I will press the Department to justify them.”
As of last week, the Department of Homeland Security is now following similar rules. Officials warned Congress the devices would be used without obtaining warrants in “time-sensitive, emergency situations.”
California Congressman Ted Lieu, a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told CNN he believes “The mass surveillance of peoples’ [sic] cell phone signals requires a warrant.”
The AP reports that during the hearing, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Seth M. Stodder revealed a new policy that allows the Secret Service to use cell site simulators without a warrant if they believe there is a “nonspecific threat to the president or another protected person.”
Stodder stated that under “exceptional circumstances,” exceptions would be made and use of the device would only require approval from “executive-level personnel” at Secret Service headquarters and the U.S. attorney for the relevant jurisdiction. Despite the exemption, Stodder said the Secret Service would not use the devices in routine criminal investigations.
Just days after the congressional hearing, The Guardian has revealed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is also making use of the Stingray devices. The Guardian reports:
“Invoices obtained following a request under the Freedom of Information Act show purchases made in 2009 and 2012 by the federal tax agency with Harris Corporation, one of a number of companies that manufacture the devices. Privacy advocates said the revelation “shows the wide proliferation of this very invasive surveillance technology.
The 2009 IRS/Harris Corp invoice is mostly redacted under section B(4) of the Freedom of Information Act, which is intended to protect trade secrets and privileged information. However, an invoice from 2012, which is also partially redacted, reports that the agency spent $65,652 on upgrading a Stingray II to a HailStorm, a more powerful version of the same device, as well as $6,000 on training from Harris Corporation.”
The HailStorm is an upgraded version of the Stingray, which is capable of gathering the actual contents of conversations and images in addition to gathering location and numbers dialed.
The history of the use of Stingrays is filled with secrecy, lies, and redacted documents. The FBI, the Harris Corporation, and local police departments continue to hide the details of how exactly the devices are being used. Should we trust government officials when they tell us they will get a warrant unless “exceptional circumstances” arise? Who defines what exactly “exceptional” means anyway? It would be wise for all those who value privacy and freedom to begin challenging the official narrative and investing in technologies that can counter the State’s surveillance.
We should also take a moment to acknowledge all the activists and journalists who have been working to expose this issue for the last several years. As Christopher Soghoian, an ACLU technologist, pointed out, “This is the first ever congressional hearing on Stingrays. This is a device the FBI started using in 1995. It shouldn’t take 20 years to get a hearing on a surveillance technology.”
It is through the work of the awakened masses that the collective springs into action. Without YOU spreading information through the internet and in the streets, this important topic would not have become part of the national dialogue. However, we must not rest. There is much work to do. For a more in-depth look at the use of Stingrays, please read this investigation.