We continue our series updating you on the exciting new world of mass surveillance you should expect in a few short years (previous posts include discussions of real-time life recording, terahertz surveillance and indoor cellphone tracking), by bringing you the Stingray.
Sure, other blogs will discuss how the Stingray has the potential to render Fourth Amendment rules on searches obsolete, or to subject our cellphone calls to monitoring at any time at the whim of law enforcement, but do those other blogs feature a 1960s puppet-based British kids’ TV series about futuristic law enforcement? I THINK NOT.
The LA Weekly reports that the LAPD obtained a Stingray in 2006, to be used for “regional terrorism investigations”. But, as we’ve already seen, the LAPD, and particularly LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, has no grasp whatsoever of who is and is not a terrorist; so color me unsurprised when it was disclosed that they were using Stingrays in investigations that have nothing whatever to do with terrorism. As Vonnegut used to say, so it goes. All we have to do is to not deceive ourselves. If Massachusetts police departments have started using them, or intend to, then they won’t self-limit to investigation of “serious” crimes.
I actually suspect that they haven’t, yet; and I’m half-reluctant to write about Stingrays, for fear of giving them ideas, or about Cellebrites either. But it’s better for activists to be aware of and mobilize against improper uses of new technologies. And there’s a major issue here. Compliant as most phone companies have been with government requests for information, having to work with them still imposes an administrative burden that prevents mass, frictionless surveillance. With a Stingray, the police don’t have to work with any third party (under their interpretation of whether they need a court order); resulting in no limits whatsoever on the use of such devices.
We hope that the current legislation on location privacy before the Massachusetts Legislature (S. 796 / H. 1684) can take into account technological developments of this kind.
UPDATE: The best analysis yet, just out from Texas blog Grits for Breakfast, points out that modules are available for the Stingray that actually do allow it to intercept the content of calls rather than “only” the location of cellphones. Owing to stonewalling by law enforcement agencies, we have no information on what agencies have purchased or are using these modules.