Over the last two years, at least 50 law enforcement agencies around the United States have used radar devices that allow them to peer through walls and into your home without a warrant, according to USA Today. The devices, each of which costs nearly $6,000, detect movement – even breathing – through walls and up to 50 feet away.
According to contracts obtained by USA Today, the US Marshals Service began buying the radars in 2012 and has since spent $180,000 on the equipment – enough for thirty Range-R radars manufactured by L-3 Communications. Disturbingly, the radars can even be mounted on a drone.
The devices were originally manufactured for use in Iraq and Afghanistan ,but have made their way onto domestic soil, providing yet another example of how the use of military gear by police results in an infringement of our fundamental right to be free of unreasonable and warrantless searches and seizures.
Without your knowledge or permission, your smartphone’s calls could be being intercepted right now by your local police department, and your taxes are definitely being misused to pay for unconstitutional police snooping.
We have reported before on “stingrays”, which started being used by local police departments in around 2006. These devices impersonate a cellphone tower and intercept the calls that would otherwise flow to other actual nearby towers. Initially bulky, stingrays can now be laptop-sized or smaller, and the most advanced models are light enough to be carried by drones. Police departments conceal their use of this technology when applying for warrants to conduct surveillance, so judges can’t distinguish between applying for a “regular” interception on an individual phone and a stingray interception which gathers all traffic from nearby cellphone towers. The devices’ main manufacturer, Harris Corporation, even obliges police departments contractually to conceal their use of stingrays. The Obama administration is so keen to preserve the cloak of secrecy around stingrays that they sent in the US Marshals to prevent the ACLU from obtaining documents relating to stingray use by a north Florida police department. The courts are beginning to recognize the intrusive nature of cellphone tower dump data, but have not yet grappled with the fact that using stingrays, law enforcement don’t have to ask a cellphone company for the data; they can just suck it up without permission.
Now there is a new way to rip that cloak. Popular Science quotes the CEO of ESD America, which manufactures the $3,500 “CryptoPhone 500”, eagerly describing how his phones could detect when stingrays were being used in their vicinity. While testing the CryptoPhone 500 in August, users found 17 sites around the country where stingrays appeared to be being used on passersby. They could detect the use of stingrays because stingrays downgrade your connection from 4G to the less secure 2G and then turn off your phone’s encryption. Normal Android smartphones or IPhones are oblivious to this process.
Twitter users have been speculating whether these 17 sites map onto the sites of fusion centers around the country. Since we’re familiar with both stingrays and fusion centers, we can say conclusively that they don’t. Most sites seem to be in commercial areas, not around fusion center or military locations. ESD is not providing the precise site locations, and stingrays’ mobility further complicates the process of detecting them. We think that CryptoPhone users have captured what is likely to be only a small subset of stingray usage not by fusion centers, or by the NSA, but by regular local police departments around the nation. We’re supporting the efforts of researchers like Muckrock who want to get more transparency about stingray use by police departments, and to keep an eye out for proposals in your community to “upgrade” police department technology.
So, do we all have to go out and upgrade to the CryptoPhone 500 in order to feel safe in our communications? Well, no; there’s another, cheaper way to find out whether the government is using stingrays in your community.
The Atlantic picks up on a story from the Center for Investigative Reporting that in 2012, the LA County Sheriff’s Department secretly tested a civilian surveillance aircraft by flying it over a town in their jurisdiction and taking high-resolution footage of everything visibly happening there, over a period of up to six hours (highlights are ours):
If it’s adopted, Americans can be policed like Iraqis and Afghanis under occupation – and at bargain prices:
McNutt, who holds a doctorate in rapid product development, helped build wide-area surveillance to hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. He decided that clusters of high-powered surveillance cameras attached to the belly of small civilian aircraft could be a game-changer in U.S. law enforcement.
“Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter,” McNutt said. “But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch.”
A sergeant in the L.A. County Sheriff’s office compared the technology to Big Brother, which didn’t stop him from deploying it over a string of necklace snatchings.
The town they chose? Compton. Yes, that Compton, but it’s not the same Compton as yesteryear. Its boosters are now touting it as the hip, countercultural Brooklyn of the LA area. It has an inspirational new Millennial mayor, Aja Brown, who has garnered comparisons to Cory Booker. Its crime rate is down sixty percent, and it’s now majority-Latino. But it still has a median household income of $42,335, and still, even after all its struggles, somehow found itself the first city selected for mass surveillance, over, say, majority-white, tony Santa Clarita (median household income $91,450). Well, blow me down with a post-racial colorblind goddamn feather.
In related news, the NSA, under its MYSTIC and RETRO programs, was revealed last month to have been collecting the contents of the phone communications of an entire country (unnamed, but probably Iraq).
These two stories are essentially the same. Developments in technology allow law enforcement surveillance to sweep past legal constraints intended for an era where collecting, storing and analyzing so much data was inconceivable. In luckless Compton, the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Florida v. Riley renders “wide area surveillance” presumptively constitutional. In luckless Iraq, the expansive powers of Executive Order 12333 and the FISA Amendments Act impose effectively no constraints on the NSA in intercepting the communications of foreign nations.
May I draw your attention to three salient points?
One of the major problems with challenging the surveillance state is that it is extremely difficult to prove legally that you have been under surveillance. The only people able to prove it are the government themselves, or (in highly unusual cases) people to whom the government has accidentally disclosed that they are under surveillance.
What if, then, there were a commercially available solution that was able to prove that you were under surveillance, and that changed encryption keys so rapidly that your data could be vulnerable at most for a few seconds before becoming secure again? This is the promise of quantum encryption systems.
The FBI has a new proposal afoot to require communications companies doing business in the US to make their communications technologies “wiretap-ready”, to avoid the “going-dark problem”. From Charlie Savage at the New York Times, six hours ago:
The Obama administration, resolving years of internal debate, is on the verge of backing a Federal Bureau of Investigation plan for a sweeping overhaul of surveillance laws that would make it easier to wiretap people who communicate using the Internet rather than by traditional phone services, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. […]
Currently, such orders instruct recipients to provide technical assistance to law enforcement agencies, leaving wiggle room for companies to say they tried but could not make the technology work. Under the new proposal, providers could be ordered to comply, and judges could impose fines if they did not.
Under the proposal, officials said, for a company to be eligible for the strictest deadlines and fines — starting at $25,000 a day — it must first have been put on notice that it needed surveillance capabilities, triggering a 30-day period to consult with the government on any technical problems.
Lord forbid that private companies should offer services that can’t be wiretapped by the government. If the FBI finds itself unable to routinely spy on the communications of people not yet suspected of any crime, that’s a feature, not a bug, and is in fact what the Fourth Amendment requires.
In America, this manic need to collect every iota of data is “helping defeat the terrorists” and “protecting the homeland”. When other countries do it, though, it’s a whole different story. Read on!
Previously, we reported on the existence of stingrays, also known as `IMSI catchers’, which are used by law enforcement as mobile cellphone towers. Stingrays intercept location and other data from all cellphones in the area, redirecting the traffic from regular cellphone towers. They can be used to get cellphone data without having even to go through phone companies to get it.
Thanks to the case US v. Rigmaiden and terrific reporting from Kim Zetter on the Threat Level blog at Wired, we now have a much more comprehensive picture of how they work and what they can do. It turns out that Stingrays have been around for longer, can do much more and are much more widespread than we might have supposed, and that how much they are really used may well be unknown to the courts.
Americans are used to thinking of ourselves as “rights pioneers.” But the American constitution is particularly difficult to amend, and is therefore slower than most to respond to a rapidly changing technological and cultural landscape. Justice Brandeis’s 1890 law review article on “The Right to Privacy” conceived of the Constitution as embodying a central, unarticulated “right to be let alone”, expressed as the “right to an inviolate personality.” Such a right was eventually recognized in the context of marriage by the US Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), famously arguing in much-mocked language that “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” The difficulty with embodying privacy as a right consists in the fact that nobody can define it clearly in a way that is not highly contingent on time-specific cultural and generational norms; we cannot say now, in 2013 and after the passage of (to name only two) marital rape laws and gay marriage laws, that the norms governing marital privacy are the same now as when Griswold was decided. Thus, culture and technology continually gallop ahead, while the law is still getting saddled up. In this post, we explore some innovative efforts to help the law catch up.
We’re used to the fact that data storage technologies, once so sensationally expensive, are becoming drastically cheaper. What we don’t yet clearly realize is what that will mean for our everyday lives. Within ten years, it will be reasonably cheap to track every moment of your life. The technology already exists. You could each have a hovering Eye over your right shoulder, keeping an archive of all of your conversations and experiences. If you have an argument with your spouse in 2020, and disagree about something he said, you could simply ask the Eye to track back to that conversation and prove you right. Or wrong.
I sense an impending rise in divorce.
Drones are, as of January 2012, legal in US airspace, and are publicly available for sale. They will only get smaller, more powerful and more ubiquitous.