Stingray Developer Misled FCC To Sell Cellphone Tracking Tech To Police

Giuseppe Macri | Tech Editor

New documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union between the Federal Communications Commission and the Harris Corporation — which sells secret cellphone surveillance devices to police across the country — reveal Harris misled the FCC about the devices known as “stingrays” while selling them to law enforcement.

Stingray devices connect to local cell towers and collect real-time data from all cellphones within a given radius to intercept names, phone numbers, locations, call records, text messages and other private cellphone data. The device masks itself as a tower, and tricks phones into transmitting information directly.

Emails between Harris and the FCC obtained by the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request show a Harris employee describing the use of stingrays by law enforcement agencies for “emergency situations” only.

“Just want to make you aware of the question below we received regarding the application for the Sting Fish,” the employee wrote to FCC regulators, according to an ACLU statement. “I know many of these questions are generated automatically but it sounds as if there is some confusion about the purpose of the equipment authorization application. As you may recall, the purpose is only to provide state/local law enforcement officials with authority to utilize this equipment in emergency situations. [Emphasis added].”

A heavily redacted letter revealed Monday from the FBI to a police department in Tacoma, Washington, stipulates that before acquiring a device from stingray manufacturers like Harris, the FCC mandates law enforcement agencies agree to a non-disclosure agreement with the bureau and keep the presence and use of the devices secret. (RELATED: FBI Instructed Local Police To Stay Silent About Cellphone Trackers, Interceptors)

Despite the stipulations touted by Harris, law enforcement agencies outed in recent years for using stingray devices reveal that usage has expanded far beyond “emergency situations” and into “routine police work.” (RELATED: California Police Using Secret Anti-Terrorism, Phone-Tracking Tech For ‘Routine Police Work’)

“[R]ecords released by the Tallahassee, Florida, Police Department explain that in nearly 200 cases since 2007 where the department used a StingRay, only 29 percent involved emergencies; most of the rest involved criminal investigations in which there was ample time to seek some sort of authorization from a judge,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to the FCC requesting an investigation in response to the email.

The ACLU recently lost a court request for documents pertaining to the use of stingray tech in another Florida police department. A state circuit judge was forced to throw out the request in June after U.S. Marshals unexpectedly seized the documents from the department in question and physically carried them hundreds of miles away. (RELATED: After Feds Snatch Documents From Police Station, Judge Throws Out Phone Spying Case)

“A private corporation obviously shouldn’t be allowed to mislead federal regulators when applying for a license to sell invasive surveillance gear,” the ACLU wrote in its statement exposing the emails. “The FCC Inspector General and a new FCC task force that will soon begin scrutinizing unauthorized Stingray use should take a close look at whether the agency’s decision to authorize sale of Stingrays was influenced by false information.”

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