From Stingrays to Dirt Boxes: Evolving Surveillance Techniques

Last week I wrote about deceptive law enforcement techniques, focusing on new details about law enforcement's use of stingray devices. The devices are small enough to fit in an undercover vehicle. The device creates a very strong but fake cell tower signal which causes phones nearby (perhaps in the whole neighborhood) to connect to it. When the phones connect, the device then captures a lot of personal information. This is particularly helpful to police when they suspect a certain person of say dealing drugs, and know where he is, but don't know his phone number, because he gets a new throw-away phone every few weeks. But it's problematic because the device is capturing the same personal information from all phones in the area. It's a dragnet.

Move over, stingrays. The Wall St Journal reports similar devices called "dirtboxes" are being used by agents on airplanes, allowing them to capture the data on thousands of cell phones during the course of a single flight. [More...]

The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.

The same group getting the orders for stingrays get the order for the dirtboxes.

The program cuts out phone companies as an intermediary in searching for suspects. Rather than asking a company for cell-tower information to help locate a suspect, which law enforcement has criticized as slow and inaccurate, the government can now get that information itself. People familiar with the program say they do get court orders to search for phones, but it isn’t clear if those orders describe the methods used because the orders are sealed.

In addition to the privacy concerns of non-suspects whose information is captured by these devices, there is concern over the kind of order prosecutors seek to authorize the usage of these devices, and whether the orders provide direction as to how information captured from phones of non-suspects is to be treated. See my earlier post noting that law enforcement apparently has been obtaining court orders to use stingrays under the pen register statute, which unlike a search warrant, does not require a showing of probable cause.

There are also reports that the Government doesn't detail the technology it intends to use in its application to the court, because it wants to keep the technology secret. So the court may not know the extent of the surveillance it is authorizing. If the Court isn't made aware of the type of device being used, or the extent of the information the device will capture, it can't know to include directions in its order for discarding the information captured on phones of non-suspects. What right does the government have to keep this information? None, that I can think of.

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    This is another casualty (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by lentinel on Fri Nov 14, 2014 at 08:30:53 AM EST
    from the dumb and never-ending war on drugs.

    That is their excuse for compromising everybody's privacy.

    Between the fake wars on drugs and wars on terror, our democracy and our rights have been eviscerated.

    And I don't know of any politician willing to express that.

    Only Nader... and of course... the left has been conditioned by the right to blame him for everything.

    Nader's a modern Don Quixote, (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by Mr Natural on Sat Nov 15, 2014 at 09:04:11 AM EST
    ... but the dragons are real.

    Maybe those Stingray Cessna airplanes (none / 0) (#1)
    by fishcamp on Fri Nov 14, 2014 at 05:27:48 AM EST
    can call my cellphone, while I'm out in my boat, and tell me where the fish are.  Miami is probably one of the five areas they fly out of, so I'm sure they cruise the Florida keys to check on the bad boy tarpon fishermen.  

    please stay on topic (none / 0) (#7)
    by Jeralyn on Sat Nov 15, 2014 at 12:50:06 PM EST
    thank you

    Well, here's something... (none / 0) (#8)
    by Mr Natural on Sun Nov 16, 2014 at 09:19:10 AM EST
    P.D.s and other LEAs forming multi jurisdictional umbrella organizations, incorporating or forming LLCs, to pool resources, funding, sociopaths and Stingrays, then claiming that the incorporated body is immune from the FOIA.

    I cannot find where I read about this, which was several months or more ago.