The modern world is exploding with new technologies that have the potential to radically alter human life on this planet both for the better and the worse. The burgeoning of surveillance technology has already begun to become pervasive in the public and private sectors, ranging from the rampant police department misuse of telephone eavesdropping devices like Stingray, to the openly available phone spyware apps like Mobistealth that can track and monitor a phone’s location, browsing history and other crucial details. The future privacy and security of Americans, and humanity in general, should not be left wholly to the power elites, law enforcement and the NSA who evidently see the benefits of mass warrantless surveillance as far outweighing the costs to the privacy and independence of the public at large.
Authoring the majority opinion in United States v. Jones (2012), the late Justice Antonin Scalia held that installing a GPS tracking device constitutes a search and is thus prohibited under the Fourth Amendment which guards against unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant based on probable cause.
Despite this, there have been numerous incidents reported around the country of unscrupulous law enforcement officials increasingly utilizing new technologies to circumvent the privacy protections the Fourth Amendment affords Americans. One of these technologies, the IMSI catcher or cell-site simulator, dubbed the “Stingray,” is fast becoming the tech du jour preferred by law enforcement agencies around the country including local and state police departments in at least 22 states as well as Federal agencies including the FBI, DEA, ATF and the list goes on.1
Every cell phone has the requirement to optimize for reception. If the cell user is in an area with more than one base station of their subscribed network accessible, it will always choose to use the strongest signal. IMSI catchers like Stingray work by masquerading as the base station with optimal signal strength for cellular communication, and causes every mobile phone within a limited radius, to connect to it. Now every phone that connects to the Stingray reports its phone number, GPS location, as well as the numbers of all incoming and outgoing calls and texts. Additionally, the mobility of the device allows authorities to achieve greater triangulation when determining a specific cellphone’s location. Documents obtained by the ACLU also seem to confirm that these devices are even capable of determining the content of phone calls and text messages.2
Americans remain divided regarding their views on the trade–off between security from terrorism and personal privacy, though recent revelations regarding the pervasive use of devices like Stingray in local law enforcement should be a major cause for concern, and not just for civil-libertarians. In mid-2014 during proceedings resulting from a 2008 case in Tallahassee, it was determined that Florida police had used Stingray devices over 200 times since 2010 all without ever disclosing this information to the courts or obtaining warrants3. Additionally it has also been revealed that the federal agency the US Marshals have used Stingray devices to track nearly 6,000 suspects. No other law enforcement agency is known to have used this invasive technology as often, wresting the dubious honor previously held by Baltimore PD. The US Marshal Service rejected a FOIA request for a log of cases in which electronic surveillance was used save for a heavily-redacted surveillance log listing 5,975 cases. Despite this prolific use, there remain scant records to suggest that the use of Stingray was revealed to those who were arrested, or their lawyers.4
Police and federal agents aren’t the only ones using these technologies. While the price agencies have paid for cell-site simulators varies widely and can often run deep into the 5 figures, a group of researchers have shown that it’s possible to build a low cost IMSI catcher that can infiltrate the popular 4G/LTE networks, for under $1,5005. If price was a barrier to entry for any hacker or ne’er do well hoping to enter the ethically-questionable surveillance game, this won’t likely be the case for long.
The nature of law is slow and reactive and is so far proving inadequate to provide citizens the protections they have a right to. Though it is essential to codify in law the legal limitations of state power, advances in technology may prove to be the most effective method at dealing with unwanted intrusions. There already exist some countermeasures to detect Stingray use such as the Android App “Agent Snowden”6 which can detect spyware, intrusions and IMSI catchers. Fighting fire with fire and using countermeasure technology may in fact be the most effective way for the average person to avoid unwanted digital intrusion. With any luck, intrepid cybersecurity professionals in conjunction with honest lawmakers can lead the way in helping to provide a more private and secure future for all of us.