This Is What You Need To Know About “Stingrays,” The Secret Device That’s Stealing Your Phone Data


While the subject of domestic surveillance programs carried out by the federal government has been at the forefront of political discussion for several years, the subject of more localized and potentially intrusive surveillance by smaller law enforcement agencies, who may be complicit in federal programs, has been neglected. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice ordered US Marshals to seize documents related to Tallahassee’s police usage of a technology known as “Stingrays”. Court testimony had already revealed that the devices were not only being used to spy on the personal data of US citizens, but that they were, as of yet, completely unregulated. Furthermore, the complaint alleged, the agencies who had purchased these devices (with taxpayer money nonetheless) had also signed strict confidentiality agreements with the manufacturer, a dark entity based in Florida known as Harris Industries. The unsealed transcripts between officers acquired by the ACLU in Tallahassee found that:

-Stingrays “emulate a cellphone tower” and “force” cell phones to register their location and identifying information with the stingray instead of with real cell towers in the area.

-Stingrays can track cell phones whenever the phones are turned on, not just when they are making or receiving calls.
Stingrays force cell phones in range to transmit information back “at full signal, consuming battery faster.” Is your phone losing battery power particularly quickly today? Maybe the cops are using a stingray nearby.

-When in use, stingrays are “evaluating all the [cell phone] handsets in the area” in order to search for the suspect’s phone. That means that large numbers of innocent bystanders’ location and phone information is captured.

In this case, police used two versions of the stingray — one mounted on a police vehicle, and the other carried by hand. Police drove through the area using the vehicle-based device until they found the apartment complex in which the target phone was located, and then they walked around with the handheld device and stood “at every door and every window in that complex” until they figured out which apartment the phone was located in. In other words, police were lurking outside people’s windows and sending powerful electronic signals into their private homes in order to collect information from within.

The Tallahassee detective testifying in the hearing estimated that, between spring of 2007 and August of 2010, the Tallahassee Police had used stingrays approximately “200 or more times.”

Now, months later, a small business responsible for selling high-end security auditing and cell phone products has found that there are at least 17 ‘fake’ cell phone towers in operation throughout the continental United States. Les Goldsmith, the CEO of ESD America has claimed knowledge of these towers, both through his own experiences and those of his clients.

ESD’s security auditing found that these sites use underhanded means to falsely convince your cell phone to send them data. Defenders of the Stingray technology claim that only certain intrusive data can be garnered from these devices, but others have claimed that police departments can use them for overwhelming access to nearly all data on your phone, and that they simply ‘agree’ to not utilize such functionality. It is now apparent that such technology has fallen into sweeping and unregulated usage, however. There was no promise made to the public about the use of any such technology, and there remains no accountability for either the users of Stingray or false cell tower technology. The implications for the justice system are severe, as police have been caught lying about the use of Stingray-type devices before. Not only are agencies lying about the existence of such devices, but they have been systemically induced to make deceptive claims about the evidence acquired from them. One email from Tallahassee saw the following directive given to officers:

“In reports or depositions we simply refer to the assistance as ‘received information from a confidential source regarding the location of the suspect.’ To date this has not been challenged…”

The utilization of such devices seems like an offense to the Fourth Amendment at face value, but the response of the legal system has been largely lackluster in response, especially given the incontrovertible evidence that they are being used as false evidence in trials. For many of us, myself included, full access to the information on my phone would be far more intrusive than even physical access to my dwelling. Fortunately, the ACLU has started to address the subject this year, and they were the ones who undertook the proceedings in Florida that resulted in any recognition of their existence and usage by local law enforcement. Additionally, they have created the following website to allow users the opportunity to discover if their town or county could be participating. Due to the fact that law enforcement is tight-lipped on the subject, and that the Justice Department has shown complicity, the only way that this information is garnered is through meticulous searching of public budget records. This author believes himself to have seen a Stingray device in the trunk of an undercover police officer, and he will be addressing the issue during upcoming City Council meetings. An attempt to photograph it was met with threats of violence from a plainclothes officer.

You can examine the ACLU’s research and see if your area is known to use this technology here.