Feds' use of spy tools under scrutiny due to privacy concerns

Feds' use of location tracking devices is a stinging civil liberties violation

If the FBI is trying to pinpoint the location of a suspect in your neighborhood, investigators could sweep up information from your mobile device just because you happen to be in proximity to their target. Civil liberties advocates are concerned that the practice is a major invasion of privacy.

The results of a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the San Francisco Bay Guardian last year sheds new light on the federal government’s use of Stingrays, a surveillance technology that mimics a cellphone tower by automatically connecting with mobile devices in the area where a search is being conducted.

Stingray is a brand name, but the devices are sometimes called Triggerfish, digital analyzers, or cell site emulators. They're known to technologists as IMSI catchers, meaning they can intercept a user's International Mobile Subscriber Identity.

As the ACLU of Northern California noted recently in a blog post, Department of Justice emails obtained in response to the FOIA request, filed with the US Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California, revealed that federal agents who sought authorization to conduct searches using this technology were "less than forthcoming" about what the devices actually do.

The issue stems from federal investigators’ request for a search warrant several years ago targeting Daniel Rigmaiden, a hacker accused of committing fraud. The search was authorized, but it seems agents never explained just how wide a net they intended to cast.

Because FBI agents used an IMSI catcher rather than, say, triangulation techniques that can utilize subscriber data to find their target, they were able to pinpoint Rigmaiden’s precise location – not only revealing that he was inside a Santa Clara apartment building, but sniffing down to the level of his exact unit. 

But when a search of this kind is conducted, a Stingray automatically connects with every other mobile device in the immediate vicinity that uses the same provider (in this case, Verizon). It works by masquerading as a cell phone tower, tricking mobile devices into automatically communicating with the spy device. So any other Verizon subscribers who happened to be nearby also had their information caught up in the FBI's net.

There are various kinds of IMSI catchers, and some are capable of sweeping in the contents of communication, such as text messages. In the Rigmaiden case, investigators said were only able to access subscriber information. Investigators also reported that they “purged” unneeded data after the fact, according to ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye. But purging the data also makes it impossible to prove that the information of particular individuals was wrongfully swept up in a search. 

The FOIA request was filed in April of last year. Last July, after the government failed to provide the information, a lawsuit was filed to get the documents.  

The string of emails that was finally provided suggests that federal agents have been using this sort of technology in the field for some time, without clearly representing to judges that Stingrays can vacuum up third party communications data. Instead of being explicit on this point, agents from the Department of Justice merely stated that they wanted to use a mobile tracking device.

“It has recently come to my attention that many agents are still using [IMSI catchers] in the field although the pen register application does not make that explicit,” notes an internal Department of Justice email obtained through the FOIA request, referring to a different kind of search technique that is more narrowly targeted. 

Lye drilled down on this point in her blog post:

“The federal government was routinely using stingray technology in the field, but failing to ‘make that explicit’ in its applications to the court to engage in electronic surveillance. When the magistrate judges in the Northern District of California finally found out what was happening, they expressed ‘collective concerns,’ according to the emails. Notably, this email chain is dated May 2011, some three years after the Stingray's use in Rigmaiden's case – meaning the government was not ‘forthright’ in its applications to federal magistrate judges for at least three years.”

After battling for months in court in a separate proceeding, the ACLU of Northern California also succeeded in unsealing the Northern District DOJ orders that authorized use of the surveillance devices. Now, the civil liberties advocates are partnering with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups to file an amicus brief concerning the constitutional implications of using a Stingray to collect evidence in the Rigmaiden case. "Their use implicates the privacy interests of the suspect, as well as untold numbers of third parties as to whom there is no probable cause," the lawyers argue.

“When we read the orders, we were very, very surprised and troubled,” Lye noted in a recent conversation with the Guardian. “Because the government was arguing in the criminal proceeding in Rigmaiden, yes, we acknowledge that we’ve used this cell site emulator, and we’re even … acknowledging that the device is intrusive enough in the way it operates to constitute a search – which is a significant concession.”

For more on Stingrays, pick up next week's issue of the SFBG.


info being made available if it helps to catch someone who is a danger to society.

What reasonable law-abiding person would not think the same? Only someone with something to hide would have an issue.

As the old saying goes, never say or do anything that you would not be happy to have made public. I now call that the Mirkarimi Principle :-)

Posted by Anon on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

You can choose to relinquish your right to privacy, but you can not choose to relinquish mine.

Posted by Mike O on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

number of pressing public policy imperatives, in much the same way as almost every other "right" originally envisaged for the denizens of this nation by our founding fathers.

I am comfortable with your rights being abrogated in a number of specific situations. Doesn't trouble me at all - it all depends what you are up to.

Posted by The really real SFASC on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

When the topic is rent control, the meme is "Aspen."
When the topic is civil liberties, you can always count on some troll coming out saying "I'm comfortable with giving up some rights."

Here's troll/anon circa 2030 (if troll lives that long):
"I'm comfortable living in a dictatorship where the cops performing random searches with anal probes."

Posted by Greg on Apr. 03, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

to say anything positive about the police, ever.

Posted by anon on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 6:55 am

to say anything critical about the police, ever; and who's always "comfortable" with any violation of civil liberties in the name of state security.

You'll make a fine citizen in any dictatorship.

Posted by Greg on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 7:34 am

the police as my friends and protestors, rather than as some state gestapo, as you evidently do.

I've no idea what you get up to that leads to so many adverse encounters with the police. Heck, you're not even black, AFAIK. But most of us who comply with the law do not have any kind of problem with the cops, and I worry far more about criminals than I worry about the cops, even if there is the odd errant one here and there.

One's attitude towards LE reflects one's attitude towards being law abiding. I don't worry about spying or rubber bullets or TAZER's or getting shot by cops because, unlike you, I do not put myself in the position where that is at all likely.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 7:43 am

Sometimes it's mroe obvious than other times, but no matter what the effrontery always is at the fore.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 7:51 am

Oh, and Lilli was caught pposting as "anon" a couple of weeks ago.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 9:42 am

and being held up as "heroes" while sometimes committing crimes such as the sadistic abuse of others' civil liberties.

anon is comfortable with that. Problem?


Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 7:49 am

most likely to draw adverse police attention?

1) Reading poetry in a meadow in GG Park

2) Helping an elderly person safely cross the street

3) Inconveniencing the public by blocking access and usage in a protest to further your own eprsonal political agenda

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 9:44 am
Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 10:01 am

lead to police action.

See that's the thing, Lilli. the vast majority of people who attract adverse police attention are up to no good.

We call them criminals.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 10:43 am

those who can be reasonably suspected of breaking any law. Read the report again.

Even stipulating that "the vast majority of people who attract adverse police attention are up to no good," does not eliminate the need to consider whether the costs of "adverse police attention" to the "minority".... *minorities?*... of *innocent* people justifies the particular calculus being employed by law enforcement to allocate their resources.

Bootlickers want precisely to eliminate our right to consider that trade-off but rather want us to settle for a happy "Father knows best" sitcom world where never any bad men become cops.

"We call them criminals." Yes, anon calls anybody who's run afoul of the cops "criminals." Why go through any trouble of a trial and jury?

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

the amount of attention a given individual receives from the cops is directly proportional to the perception that they are acting in a potentially criminal manner.

Cops don't usually frisk nuns walking down the street, for instance. Experience tells them that is highly unlikely to lead to the discovery of a crime.

Maybe you should dress as a nun?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

Maybe you shouldn't have to dress as a nun to keep your rights intact? Now there's a concept...

Guest, you sound like those neanderthals in India telling women that they get raped because they dress wrong.

The point is that it's the fault of the perpetrator, not the victim. How you dress should have nothing to do with whether you feel safe walking down the street that your body won't be violated, be it from being raped, or merely "frisked."

Posted by Greg on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

how suspiscious your behavior is. Trained LE professionals in any field (customs, border patrol, coastguard, FBI etc.) can intuit a bad guy from a good guy via various "tells" and "shows" and - the best ones anyway - have uncanny instincts.

But most of the time it is simpler than that because the act is open and notorious. For instance, although you seem to have a lot of brushes with the law, I doubt that you go around robbing banks.

But i'll bet you go on enough protests for your picture to be on a file, and I suspect that you can barely conceal your hatred for the cops when you encounter them.

So it is hardly shocking that you have a worse experience with the cops than I do. You probably cop an attitude with them, or start phototgraphing them, or some such. Whereas I will say "Good day, officer, how may I help you?"

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

Your lame bootlicker slogans don't carry much weight outside the doughnut shop.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

I know that I feel safer knowing that they do what it takes to find the bad guys.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 4:24 pm
Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 04, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

So, you don't have money in the bank? So you don't have money under your mattress? Do you have any property, a wife you'd like to protect and make sure no one is stalking her, or an asshole you'd like to keep intact, then you really probably don't have anything to hide...

Posted by Poster on Jun. 06, 2013 @ 7:41 pm