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New hi-tech US police surveillance/UK spying uses foreign loophole

stingrayThe “StingRay” cell phone spying device

By Clarence Walker From Global Research

Blocked by a Supreme Court decision from using GPS tracking devices without a warrant, federal investigators and other law enforcement agencies are turning to a new, more powerful and more threatening technology in their bid to spy more freely on those they suspect of drug crimes. That’s leading civil libertarians, electronic privacy advocates, and even some federal judges to raise the alarm about a new surveillance technology whose use has yet to be taken up definitively by the federal courts.

The new surveillance technology is the StingRay (also marketed as Triggerfish, IMSI Catcher, Cell-site Simulator or Digital Analyzer), a sophisticated, portable spy device able to track cell phone signals inside vehicles, homes and insulated buildings. StingRay trackers act as fake cell towers, allowing police investigators to pinpoint location of a targeted wireless mobile by sucking up phone data such as text messages, emails and cell-site information.

stingray-price-listWhen a suspect makes a phone call, the StingRay tricks the cell into sending its signal back to the police, thus preventing the signal from traveling back to the suspect’s wireless carrier. But not only does StingRay track the targeted cell phone, it also extracts data off potentially thousands of other cell phone users in the area.

Although manufactured by a Germany and Britain-based firm, the StingRay devices are sold in the US by the Harris Corporation, an international telecommunications equipment company. It gets between $60,000 and $175,000 for each Stingray it sells to US law enforcement agencies.

[While the US courts are only beginning to grapple with StingRay, the high tech cat-and-mouse game between cops and criminals continues afoot. Foreign hackers reportedly sell an underground IMSI tracker to counter the Stingray to anyone who asks for $1000. And in December 2011, noted German security expert Karsten Nohl released “Catcher Catcher,” powerful software that monitors a network’s traffic to seek out the StingRay in use.]

Originally intended for terrorism investigations, the feds and local law enforcement agencies are now using the James Bond-type surveillance to track cell phones in drug war cases across the nation without a warrant. Federal officials say that is fine — responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and the First Amendment Coalition, the Justice Department argued that no warrant was needed to use StingRay technology.

“If a device is not capturing the contents of a particular dialogue call, the device does not require a warrant, but only a court order under the Pen Register Statute showing the material obtained is relevant to an ongoing investigation,” the department wrote.

The FBI claims that it is adhering to lawful standards in using StingRay. “The bureau advises field officers to work closely with the US Attorney’s Office in their districts to comply with legal requirements,” FBI spokesman Chris Allen told the Washington Post last week, but the agency has refused to fully disclose whether or not its agents obtain probable cause warrants to track phones using the controversial device.

And the federal government’s response to the EFF’s FOIA about Stingray wasn’t exactly responsive. While the FOIA request generated over 20,000 records related to StingRay, the Justice Department released only a pair of court orders and a handful of heavily redacted documents that didn’t explain when and how the technology was used.

The LA Weekly reported in January that the StingRay “intended to fight terrorism was used in far more routine Los Angeles Police criminal investigations,” apparently without the courts’ knowledge that it probes the lives of non-suspects living in the same neighborhood with a suspect.

Critics say the technology wrongfully invades technology and that its uncontrolled use by law enforcement raised constitutional questions. “It is the biggest threat to cell phone privacy you don’t know about,” EFF said in a statement.

ACLU privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian told a Yale Law School Location Tracking and Biometrics Conference panel last month that “the government uses the device either when a target is routinely and quickly changing phones to thwart a wiretap or when police don’t have sufficient cause for a warrant.”

“The government is hiding information about new surveillance technology not only from the public, but even from the courts,” ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye wrote in a legal brief in the first pending federal StingRay case (see below). “By keeping courts in the dark about new technologies, the government is essentially seeking to write its own search warrants, and that’s not how the Constitution works.”

Lye further expressed concern over the StingRay’s ability to interfere with cell phone signals in violation of Federal Communication Act. “We haven’t seen documents suggesting the LAPD or any other agency have sought or obtained FCC authorization,” she wrote.

“If the government shows up in your neighborhood, essentially every phone is going to check in with the government,” said the ACLU’s Soghoian. “The government is sending signals through people’s walls and clothes and capturing information about innocent people. That’s not much different than using invasive technology to search every house on a block,” Soghoian said during interviews with reporters covering the StingRay story.

Advocates also raised alarms over another troubling issue: Using the StingRay allows investigators to bypass the routine process of obtaining fee-based location data from cell service providers like Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Comcast. Unlike buying location data fro service providers, using StingRay leaves no paper trail for defense attorneys.

Crack defense attorney Stephen Leckar who scored a victory in a landmark Supreme Court decision over the feds’ warrantless use of a GPS tracker in US v. Jones, a cocaine trafficking case where the government tracked Jones’ vehicle for weeks without a warrant, also has concerns.

“Anytime the government refuses to disclose the ambit of its investigatory device, one has to wonder, what’s really happening,” he told the Chronicle. ”If without a warrant the feds use this sophisticated device for entry into people’s homes, accessing private information, they may run afoul of a concurring opinion by Justice Alito, who ruled in US v Jones whether people would view unwarranted monitoring of their home or property as Constitutionally repugnant.”

Leckar cited Supreme Court precedent in Katz v. US (privacy) and US v. Kyllo (thermal imaging), where the Supreme Court prohibited searches conducted by police from outside the home to obtain information behind closed doors. Similar legal thinking marked February’s Supreme Court decision in a case where it prohibited the warrantless use of drug dogs to sniff a residence, Florida v. Jardines.

The EFF FOIA lawsuit shed light on how the US government sold StingRay devices to state and local law enforcement agencies for use specifically in drug cases. The Los Angeles and Fort Worth police departments have publicly acknowledged buying the devices, and records show that they are using them for drug investigations.

“Out of 155 cell phone investigations conducted by LAPD between June and September 2012, none of these cases involved terrorism, but primarily involved drugs and other felonies,” said Peter Scheer, director of the First Amendment Center.

The StingRay technology is so new and so powerful that it not only raises Fourth Amendment concerns, it also raises questions about whether police and federal agents are withholding information about it from judges to win approval to monitor suspects without meeting the probable cause standard required by the Fourth. At least one federal judge thinks they are. Magistrate Judge Brian Owsley of the Southern District of Texas in Corpus Christi told the Yale conference federal prosecutors are using clever techniques to fool judges into allowing use of StingRay. They will draft surveillance requests to appear as Pen Register applications, which don’t need to meet the probable cause standards.

“After receiving a second StingRay request,” Owsley told the panel, “I emailed every magistrate judge in the country telling them about the device. And hardly anyone understood them.”

In a earlier decision related to a Cell-site Simulator, Judge Owsley denied a DEA request to obtain data information to identify where the cell phone belonging to a drug trafficker was located. DEA wanted to use the suspect’s E911 emergency tracking system that is operated by the wireless carrier. E911 trackers reads signals sent to satellites from a cell phone’s GPS chip or by triangulation of radio transmitted signal. Owsley told the panel that federal agents and US attorneys often apply for a court order to show that any information obtained with a StingRay falls under the Stored Communication Act and the Pen Register statute.

DEA later petitioned Judge Owsley to issue an order allowing the agent to track a known drug dealer with the StingRay. DEA emphasized to Owsley how urgently they needed approval because the dealer had repeatedly changed cell phones while they spied on him. Owsley flatly denied the request, indicating the StingRay was not covered under federal statute and that DEA and prosecutors had failed to disclose what they expected to obtain through the use of the stored data inside the drug dealer’s phone, protected by the Fourth Amendment.

“There was no affidavit attached to demonstrate probable cause as required by law under rule 41 of federal criminal procedures,” Owsley pointed out. The swiping of data off wireless phones is “cell tower dumps on steroids,” Owsley concluded.

But judges in other districts have ruled favorably for the government. A federal magistrate judge in Houston approved DEA request for cell tower data without probable cause. More recently, New York Southern District Federal Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein approved warrantless cell-site data.

“The government did not install the tracking device — and the cell user chose to carry the phone that permitted transmission of its information to a carrier,” Gorenstein held in that opinion. “Therefore no warrant is needed.”

In a related case, US District Court Judge Liam O’Grady of the Northern District of Virginia ruled that the government could obtain data from Twitter accounts of three Wikileakers without a warrant. Because they had turned over their IP addresses when they opened their Twitter accounts, they had no expectation of privacy, he ruled.

“Petitioners knew or should have known that their IP information was subject to examination by Twitter, so they had a lessened expectation of privacy in that information, particularly in light of their apparent consent to the Twitter terms of service and privacy policy,” Judge O’Grady wrote.

A federal judge in Arizona is now set to render a decision in the nation’s first StingRay case. After a hearing last week, the court in US v. Rigmaiden is expected to issue a ruling that could set privacy limits on how law enforcement uses the new technology. Just as the issue of GPS tracking technology eventually ended up before the Supreme Court, this latest iteration of the ongoing balancing act between enabling law enforcement to do its job and protecting the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of citizens could well be headed there, too.


Cellphone 2

StingRay cell phone spying device (US Patent photo)

StingRay pricing chart (

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States limit police cellphone spying, but feds help seal records

cellphone2By John Kelly, USA TODAY

Nine states this year placed new legal limits on police cellphone surveillance after revelations that law enforcement agencies across the country are gathering cellphone data of thousands of people at once, often without warrants or without regard to whether they are criminal targets.

At least 10 more legislatures weighed similar legislation after USA TODAY and affiliated newspapers and TV stations reported in December about widespread local and state police use of technology to gather cellphone records in bulk. Some individual police agencies tightened internal oversight, too.

Meanwhile, federal law enforcement agencies continue to intervene to help local and state governments prevent release of public records about the secretive cell-snooping device called a Stingray, which acts as a fake cell tower, forcing all nearby mobile devices to connect to it and transmit location and other identifying data through it.

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 8.01.49 AMInvoking anti-terrorism concerns if the public knows more about the technology, the U.S. Department of Justice has testified in cases and offered legal assistance to agencies fighting public records requests about Stingrays in Arizona, California and Florida.

After consulting with federal authorities and the device’s manufacturer, some local and state governments released mostly blacked-out purchase records. Many agencies said they limited release of even usually routine spending information because of homeland security concerns, although records obtained across the U.S. show police use Stingrays and related gear mostly for routine crime-fighting.

In Sarasota in recent days, court records show the U.S. Marshals Service seized city police records about use of a Stingray device, which had been sought under the state’s open records law. The parties were in court Thursday, as debate continues about whether the records belong to the Sarasota Police or the Marshals Service.

“The concern here is they are intervening to prevent the release of basic accountability information about what government agencies are doing with public money, and whether they’re using it to violate people’s rights,” said Nathan Wessler, an attorney with the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, who has been requesting Stingray records across the U.S.

The invocation of Homeland Security and anti-terror concerns in local and state public records cases could place a “real chill” on journalists or private watchdog groups trying to get records about the spending of public money, and activities of local and state government, he said.

Despite efforts to stop release of records, USA TODAY-affiliated journalists continue to pry loose documentation about cellphone surveillance from reluctant agencies. In the initial wave of requests, three-dozen agencies first refused to release the records.

Since then, new records obtained in Florida, California and Wisconsin show at least 11 more local police agencies possess Stingray devices than USA TODAY reported in December. That brings to at least 35 the number of agencies proven by public records to have the devices, most of which are shared widely with agencies that don’t have them.

In California, The Desert Sun of Palm Springs obtained records proving the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department bought a Stingray, and News 10 in Sacramento confirmed seven agencies in its region own Stingrays. Two more northern California agencies have grants to buy Stingrays this year.

In Wisconsin, agencies released heavily-redacted records showing the state Department of Justice and Milwaukee Police Department own Stingrays. The state lends the gear to cops in Wisconsin and beyond.

In Florida, a judge disclosed Tallahassee police did not obtain a search warrant to enter a suspect’s apartment because they did not want to reveal the existence of the cellphone tracking technology despite an effort by local police — and intervention in court by the FBI — to keep Tallahassee’s use of Stingray secret.

Tallahassee police testified they were forbidden to disclose Stingray’s use, even in court, by a nondisclosure agreement with the manufacturer, Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla. Harris, as it has since December, declined any comment about Stingrays or the public records cases through spokesman Jim Burke.

In oral arguments, Judge Robert Benton said there are 200 cases where police hadn’t sought search warrants because of the technology. After the Tallahassee Democrat reported the warrantless Stingray use, Michael DeLeo, chief of police of the Tallahassee Police Department, promised to boost internal oversight of officers’ cellphone tracking.

“We want to catch people who are preying on our community, but we also recognize the importance of people’s rights,” DeLeo said. The policy will “make sure that we don’t slip.”

“An encouraging first step,” said John Sawicki, a Tallahassee attorney specializing in cellphone forensics. “However, their continued, routine practice of sealing court records to conceal virtually every use of the device in which they seek a court order raises a lot of questions.”

As in most states, California police agencies bought Stingrays with grant money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Applications justify the purchases as an anti-terror tool, but records obtained from many police departments show the devices are being used to pursue more routine local crime. Oakland police records listing arrests tied to Stingrays indicate none were terrorism-related, News 10 reported. The same is true, Wessler said, in every jurisdiction where he’s been allowed to inspect sample cases.

Linda Lye, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, laments the potential for mission creep. “The public and criminal defendants don’t have any idea what guidelines govern their use,” Lye said.

The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department would not expound on its Stingray use. “It wouldn’t be effective if we told everyone how it works and how we use it,” said spokeswoman Cindy Bachman.

In Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Utah, Colorado and Tennessee new laws were passed this year requiring warrants before police could harvest data from cellphones. Maine and Montana had passed similar laws in 2013. And New Jersey’s Supreme Court already had ruled cops needed a warrant to get cellphone data.

Still, the laws’ details and focus vary by state, and some privacy worries persist.

“We have very powerful technology that has very important consequences for our privacy, but we don’t have the kind of transparency necessary to kind of understand what the contours of the issue are,” said Byron Lichstein, an attorney arguing a Wisconsin Supreme Court case involving a Stingray. “Even if the targeted information is narrow, the amount and private nature of the information that can be collected is pretty striking.”

Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman told lawmakers police constantly weigh privacy issues. She said the laws “are very complex and very difficult sometimes to understand.”

Minnesota State Rep. John Lesch pushed for clarifying the rules: “Just saying, ‘Most of the time, we do X’ is not a good enough answer for me.”



How Stingray works

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Read what the UK is doing below to spy on their citizens:

UK spies using foreign loopholes to monitor Google, Facebook and Twitter users

gchqBy Matt Brian From engadget

GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence agency, has yet to confirm whether it taps undersea network cables to gather content from ISPs, but we now know how it would justify access if it did. Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, revealed that spies could intercept British users’ Google searches, Facebook updates and Twitter posts when servers are located outside of the country. The information came to light after Privacy International, Liberty, Amnesty International and a number of civil liberties organizations issued a legal challenge against GCHQ in an attempt to unravel the secrets of agency’s Tempora data-tapping program, which were revealed as part of Edward Snowden’s NSA document leaks.

British law states that agencies do not have the right to spy on internal communications. However, the same restrictions are not applicable for foreign transmissions. Farr argues that if a Briton was to perform a Google search on a server that is located outside of the UK, it would be classed as an “external communication.” Facebook updates and Twitter posts would likely fall under the same classification, although direct communications like emails may be protected, as the sender and the recipient both reside in the UK.

Worryingly, if content is deemed to be an external communication, UK law states that it can be searched, read and eavesdropped upon, regardless of whether the people involved were suspected of any wrongdoing. Farr’s statement notes that the UK has for “many years faced a serious threat from terrorism,” and that the sharing of data has led to the prevention of terrorist attacks and other serious crimes. Microsoft has already begun blocking US government requests to access European data, and now that intelligence agencies are slowly starting to reveal their data access strategies, more companies could follow suit or begin locally hosting servers.

[Image credit: UK Ministry of Defense, Flickr]

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