A recent newspaper report indicates that the Tacoma, Washington, police department have purchased and used a surveillance device that can scan cell phone activity, including recent calls and texts, up to half a mile away. The device, called a Stingray, is small enough to be carried in a car and works by tricking nearby cell phones into treating it as a cell tower. While the Tacoma Police Depart has not confirmed that they possess such a device, Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer stated on Tuesday that the Police Department occasionally uses the device when operating with the sheriff’s office. Troyes said that since April the sheriff’s office has requested that the Police Department use the Stingray in at least two cases. Additionally, The News Tribune claims that public records, and other documents it has investigated, indicate that the Tacoma Police Department has had the capacity to wirelessly monitor neighborhoods since 2008.
The Tacoma Police Department is one of a growing number of law enforcement agencies that are using devices similar to the Stingray to locate suspects and pick up information on who he communicates with and for how long. The Columbian reports that although investigators commonly use this technology to find criminals, civil libertarians are concerned over whether such devices are sweeping information too broadly, putting civilians’ liberties at risk in the process.
The Stingray is one of the more popular devices produced by Harris Corp. in Melbourne, Florida. It works by exploiting a fault in cell phone signal security. Cell phones are designed to seek the strongest cell tower signal; the Stingray imitates the signal of strong cell tower and tricks phones into passing data to it. As detailed in this Ars Technica article, the Stingray is capable of capturing hundreds of unique phone identifying codes and allows the operator to hone in on a specific one.
Local response to the Police Department’s use of the surveillance device has been mixed. Ronald Culpepper, the presiding judge of Pierce County Superior Court, said: “I would certainly personally have some concerns about just sweeping up information from non-involved and innocent parties — and to do it with a whole neighborhood? That’s concerning.” While City Manager T.C. Broadnax claims the ends justify the means, stating: “I’m not in law enforcement, but it’s my impression that it assists them in doing their job more effectively, and that’s to protect the public.”
One organization that does not have such mixed opinions regarding the use of the Stingray is ACLU. Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., claims that “It’s like they’re kicking down the doors of 50 homes and searching 50 homes because they don’t know where the bad guy is.” ACLU has even been known to take action to raise public awareness of the governments’ use of the Stingray. Doug Honig, spokesman for ACLU in Seattle, has argued that the government needs increased transparency in their policies on the use of “invasive surveillance technology.”