Our cellular phones, the U.S. Supreme Court recently opined, contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of [our] lives – from the mundane to the intimate.” Indeed, many of us use our cellphones to privately convey our love, our insecurities, our fears, our locations, and our most sensitive relationships.
Yet right now, across the United States, law enforcement agents have secret, unfettered access to all of it, and the government is trying to keep it that way.
It was recently revealed that the FBI has been colluding with the Oklahoma City Police Department to conceal the use of equipment capable of powerful, surreptitious, and constitutionally dubious cellphone surveillance. The device, known as a StingRay, operates by mimicking the signal of a cell tower. The StingRay puts out a boosted signal that muscles out the signals of legitimate cell towers and forces nearby phones to connect to the device.
Once your phone is connected, the operator of the device can triangulate your position, see the incoming and outgoing numbers, and by all indications intercept the actual content of your communications. Police often deploy StingRays without probable-cause warrants or, in some cases, court orders. Even when police seek warrants and orders, the federal government has coached them to mislead judges about precisely what they are being asked to authorize.
StingRay deployments have been confirmed in at least 24 states and the District of Columbia, and there is every reason to believe many of the remaining states possess them and simply haven’t been forced to disclose it. Different departments have different deployment policies, but cities such as Baltimore have admitted to deploying the devices in thousands of investigations.
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