Even on dry land, Americans should fear the stingray. Not the flat cartilaginous fishes related to sharks, but the secret government surveillance device that not only tracks suspected criminals but also intercepts the private information of law-abiding citizens who happen to be nearby. Now, because of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and lawsuit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) against the FBI, the government is slowly releasing thousands of relevant documents that are already raising alarms among privacy and civil liberties advocates.
The stingray came to public notice in 2011 when the FBI used a “cell-site simulator” to track down a suspect. This portable device, also called an “IMSI catcher” or a “stingray,” sends out a signal that fools nearby wireless phones into connecting with a fake network. It can then capture all sorts of personal data from all of those phones, including location data that can then be used to track a person’s movements in real time. A stingray can be handheld or mounted on a motor vehicle or an unmanned surveillance drone.
As the FBI has admitted to EPIC, because the stingray fools all nearby wireless phones into connecting with its bogus network and uploading private data to it, its use would constitute a “search and seizure” under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution and thus require a warrant. However, because the FBI argues that wireless phone users have no reasonable expectation to privacy, the agency says it does not need a warrant. The Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the privacy of cell phone calls.