Police throughout the U.S. are using a new technology called StingRay to snoop on cellular phone calls and text messages. Unfortunately, they do not always obtain a warrant when utilizing this intrusive technology. The StingRay operates by
replicating a cellular tower, forcing cellular phones in its space to reveal their identities and send transmissions to the police headquarters rather than an actual tower.
It has not been revealed how frequently the technology is used, nor exactly what types of information it can collect. The vague assumption is that StingRay allows law enforcement to listen in on cellular phone calls and read text messages. Anyone who believes in the Constitution and its protections of personal privacy should be up in arms at the government’s use of this technology. Its use constitutes an unreasonable search and seizure with a lack of probable cause and a lack of a warrant. Both are in direct conflict with the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
Police likely do not obtain a warrant because the StingRay’s producer, Harris Corporation, mandates that law enforcement using the device sign a non-disclosure agreement. Action is being taken to stop police from using this intrusive technology. Sacramento News 10 has put in requests to all major law enforcement groups in Northern California in order to determine exactly who is using the technology and how often it is used. The requests are still open but the tidbits of information presented from police in response are denials and pleadings of ignorance. News 10 did find a grant application that shows that many Northern California law enforcement agencies are using StingRays. The document states that police are utilizing the technology to track cellular phone activity throughout the Bay Area and they can do so at the drop of a hat.
A USA Today investigation conducted in 2013 shows that 25 out of 125 law enforcement agencies owned a StingRay. Yet the majority of these agencies did not cooperate with USA Today’s public records requests. They continually cite their non-disclosure agreement with the manufacturer of StingRay. Their argument is that the release of this information to the public will damage their efforts to keep the public safe.
Yet why should a private contract trump the law? It should not. There should be a set of clearly defined rules in place that force police using this breakthrough technology to comply with the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
Patrick Donovan is a Massachusetts criminal attorney.