Stingrays: Not Just for Feds!
From Ferguson to Senate hearings, the news of local police arming themselves with federal-grade equipment—tanks, riot gear, M16 rifles—has captivated everyone from civil libertarians to lawmakers. But in the national debate surrounding police militarization, the most effective weapons may have been overlooked: Beyond arming themselves like the federal government, local police are also spying on you like the federal government—using sophisticated surveillance technology without warrants.
One of the tools making it possible for Chief Wiggum to gather all your deets is known colloquially as a Stingray, a portable gadget about the size of a box of doughnuts. They’re also known as “cell-site simulators,” because, well, that’s exactly what they do: A Stingray mimics a cellphone tower and forces all nearby mobile phones or devices to connect to it. Every phone that connects to the Stingray reports its number, GPS location, and the numbers of all outgoing calls and texts. That’s every location and outgoing call and text log of every phone within a certain radius—up to several kilometers—of the Stingray, and that’s all without a warrant.
It’s probably not a huge surprise to most people in America today that the federal government has incredible surveillance technology that it uses occasionally on its own citizens. (Hi, NSA!) But polling shows that only 27 percent of people think that this technology is focused on them, and even if not, half of Americans surveyed say that there might be a margin of federal surveillance they’re willing to endure in the name of homeland security or fighting terrorism.
But that logic is a much harder sell when it comes to local police, who have been acquiring Stingrays in increasing numbers. At least 46 state and local police departments, from Sunrise, Florida, to Hennepin, Minnesota, have gotten cell-site simulators, which range widely in price from $16,000 to more than $125,000 a pop. And like the federal government, local police are using this technology without any judicial oversight. That means Barney Fife—or, if you’re looking for a more sinister example, think Denzel in Training Day—can walk into your neighborhood with a Stingray, fire it up, and collect all the numbers, GPS, and call logs of every cellphone in the area. If they’re looking for a specific number (hopefully, it’s not you), they can also use a Stingray to trick your phone into being a personal GPS tracker and then use that warrantless cellphone tracking to enter your home and arrest you—again without a warrant.