Judge OKs FBI Tracking Tool That Tricks Cellphones With Clandestine Signal

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 9 2013 4:35 PM

Judge OKs FBI Tracking Tool That Tricks Cellphones With Clandestine Signal

With a Stingray, even innocent bystanders' mobile communications could be collected by law enforcement

Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Back in March, the FBI was accused of hiding information from judges when seeking authorization for a clandestine cellphone tracking device called the “Stingray.” But now a judge has ruled that the feds’ use of the surveillance tool was lawful in a case that could have wider ramifications for law enforcement spy tactics.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

The Stingray, sometimes described as an “IMSI catcher,” is a transceiver used by the FBI to locate suspects. As I have reported here previously, it sends out a signal that tricks phones within a targeted area into hopping onto a fake network. Civil liberties groups have challenged the lawfulness of the Stingray’s deployment, particularly because it intentionally gathers data from innocent bystanders’ phones and interferes with signals in a way that may be barred under a federal communications law. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act have also appeared to show that the FBI knows its use of the device is in shaky legal territory. The technology has been used in some capacity by the feds for almost two decades, but only recently has it garnered attention, in part because of a court case in Arizona—U.S. v. Rigmaiden.


The ACLU had argued that evidence gleaned from a Stingray to track down Daniel Rigmaiden, who is accused of conspiracy, wire fraud, and identity theft, should be suppressed. The rights group alleged that when the FBI sought authorization to use the Stingray, it concealed information about the device. In an amicus brief, the ACLU wrote that “[b]y failing to apprise the magistrate that it intended to use a stingray, what the device is, and how it works, it prevented the judge from exercising his constitutional function of ensuring that warrants are not overly intrusive and all aspects of the search are supported by probable cause.”

But on Wednesday, Judge David Campbell dismissed the motion to suppress. Campbell concluded that the warrant was valid and that the suspect “did not have an expectation of privacy society is willing to accept as legitimate.” Campbell wrote that the suspect could not “credibly argue that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy” because he had allegedly rented his apartment and purchased his computer fraudulently using false identities. The judge also added that the use of the Stingray did not constitute a “severe intrusion” and ultimately held that “no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.”

The ACLU responded with dismay, stating that it believes the ruling “trivializes the intrusive nature of electronic searches and potentially opens the door to troubling government misuse of new technology.” Linda Lye, staff attorney at ACLU, wrote in a blog post that the group was particularly disgruntled that the judge appeared to dismiss the significance of the Stingray’s ability to scoop up data from innocent third parties, which the ACLU believes the feds do not fully disclose. Campbell’s approval of the Stingray in the Rigmaiden case, Lye wrote, sends the message that it is “alright to withhold information from courts about new technology, which means that the law will have an even harder time catching up.”

Incidentally, new FBI documents related to the Stingray were released by the Electronic Privacy Information Center on Wednesday. Four hundred pages of heavily redacted files, some marked “secret,” join several other batches that have been released by the rights group as part of ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation. Of particular note in the latest trove are documents that show the FBI has been imposing nondisclosure agreements on its staff in order to prevent public disclosure of any information related to the spy technology.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 20 2014 1:50 PM Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Sure About the Supposed Deal to Return the Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Dear Prudence
Oct. 20 2014 3:12 PM Terror Next Door Prudie advises a letter writer whose husband is dangerously, violently obsessed with the neighbors.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.