“Police see our mobile devices as the go-to source for information,” Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “The idea that police can obtain such a rich treasure trove of data about any one of us without appropriate judicial oversight should send shivers down our spines.”
The records, from more than 125 police agencies in 33 states, reveal:
• About one in four law-enforcement agencies have used a tactic known as a “tower dump,” which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to the targeted cellphone towers over a set span of time, usually an hour or two. A typical dump covers multiple towers, and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones.
• At least 25 police departments own a Harris Corp “Stingray“, a suitcase-size device that costs as much as $400,000 and acts as a fake cell tower. The system, typically installed in a vehicle so it can be moved into any neighborhood, tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police. In some states, the devices are available to any local police department via state surveillance units. The federal government funds most of the purchases, via anti-terror grants.
• Thirty-six more police agencies refused to say whether they’ve used either tactic. Most denied public records requests, arguing that criminals or terrorists could use the information to thwart important crime-fighting and surveillance techniques.
“I don’t think that these devices should never be used, but at the same time, you should clearly be getting a warrant,” said Alan Butler of EPIC.
In most states, police can get many kinds of cellphone data without obtaining a warrant, which they’d need to search someone’s house or car. Privacy advocates, legislators and courts are debating the legal standards with increasing intensity as technology — and the amount of sensitive information people entrust to their devices — evolves.
Local and state police, from Florida to Alaska, are buying Stingrays with federal grants aimed at protecting cities from terror attacks, but using them for far broader police work.
With the mobile Stingray, police can get a court order to grab some of the same data available via a tower dump with two added benefits. The Stingray can grab some data from cellphones in real time and without going through the wireless service providers involved. Neither tactic — tower dumps or the Stingray devices — captures the content of calls or other communication, according to police.
Typically used to hunt a single phone’s location, the system intercepts data from all phones within a mile, or farther, depending on terrain and antennas.
The cell-tracking systems cost as much as $400,000, depending on when they were bought and what add-ons they have. The latest upgrade, code-named “Hailstorm,” is spurring a wave of upgrade requests.
Initially developed for military and spy agencies, the Stingrays remain a guarded secret by law enforcement and the manufacturer, Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla. The company would not answer questions about the systems, referring reporters to police agencies. Most police aren’t talking, either, partly because Harris requires buyers to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
“Any idea of having adequate oversight of the use of these devices is hampered by secrecy,” says Butler, who sued the FBI for records about its Stingray systems. Under court order, the FBI released thousands of pages, though most of the text is blacked out.
“When this technology disseminates down to local government and local police, there are not the same accountability mechanisms in place. You can see incredible potential for abuses,” American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Catherine Crump says.
Meet CO-TRAVELER: The NSA’s cell phone location tracking program
An article yesterday in the Washington Post disclosed the NSA’s massive cell phone location program. The program, codenamed CO-TRAVELER, is designed to track who meets with whom and covers everyone who carries a cell phone, all around the world.
With neither public debate nor court authorization, CO-TRAVELER collects billions of records daily of cell phone user location information. It maps the relationships of cell phone users across global mobile network cables, gathering data about who you are physically with and how often your movements intersect with other cell phone users. The program even tracks when your phone is turned on or off.
The trillions of collected records, which add up to twice the amount of data in the Library of Congress’ print collection, are saved and stored in the NSA’s mammoth database called FASCIA. While allegedly aimed at foreigners and mobile phones overseas, the NSA admits that it has “incidentally” collected location information on U.S. persons.
CO-TRAVELER does not simply collect location information. It creates a portrait of travel times and people who crossed paths, revealing our physical interactions and relationships. The cell site information goes beyond email and phone calls and ordinary telephony data, allowing the U.S. government to know who we are with in-person and where. This is information that would be impossible to collect using traditional law enforcement methods.
An NSA official said that the agency’s collection methods are “tuned to be looking outside the United States.” This appears to be an attempt to assert that U.S. law does not apply because they are not “targeting” U.S. persons. Without the protections of U.S. law, the spying is regulated only by Executive Orders–orders by the President that are not subject to substantive oversight, and can be modified at any time. It’s likely that this program falls under Executive Order 12333. EO 12333 has few limits on surveillance overseas, even if it is a U.S. person.
The CO-TRAVELER program is based on guilt by association, tracking location to determine our relationships and where we meet. The First Amendment protects our right to associate with individuals and groups without disclosing that information to the government. This is an essential right because it allows people to discuss their ideas, concerns, and feelings with others without the shadow of government surveillance.
Equally threatening to the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are the speech-chilling effects of cell phone location tracking. Even if you use encryption online, when you meet someone in person and aren’t even on the phone, your movements may be tracked and recorded and stored.
NSA and GCHQ spied on online gamers: