Civilian surveillance is alive and well, thanks to regional terrorism investigations mandated by the Patriot Act. According to L.A. Weekly, the latest threat to an individual’s privacy and liberty is a real-time cellphone spy device called StingRay. While intended for intercepting terrorist transmissions, reports indicate that the Los Angeles Police Department used StingRay 21 times in a four-month period of 2012 for routine investigations, where non-suspects’ private communications were revealed, unbeknownst to the court system. Call it collateral damage, as the non-suspects lived near persons the LAPD believed were terrorists. Better yet, call it collateral erosion of the individual rights of complacent citizens.
StingRay tapped over 13 percent of cellphone investigations from June to Sept. 2012
Of the 155 StingRay cellular phone investigation cases the LAPD faced between June and September last year, over 13 percent of cases exposed the communications of innocent non-suspects without their awareness or consent. The LAPD has had access to StingRay technology since 2006, thanks to subsidies from the federal Department of Homeland Security. The intent was for StingRay to be used specifically for terrorism investigations, but the LAPD has documented proof that there have been burglary, drug and murder investigations where StingRay was pressed into use. As yet, LAPD officials have refused to address questions regarding the StingRay technology, including whether the department thinks it has the legal right to use the technology in a way that invades the privacy of non-suspects.
One person who doesn’t believe the LAPD has the right to use StingRay in this fashion is Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. Scheer notes that LAPD procedure manuals are ambiguous as to whether such use of StingRay is legal without a warrant or judicial permission. According to those familiar with the technology, avoiding collateral cellular data interception from non-suspects when they are in close proximity to suspects is practically impossible.
StingRay also circumvents carrier technology
Another troubling aspect of StingRay to civil rights advocates is that the technology can circumvent the standard process of requesting location data from carrier networks before eavesdropping. Typically, authorities have needed a court order before gaining access, but with StingRay, authorities can get around carrier monitors completely in secret.
How should StingRay fit in with privacy laws?
At this juncture, there’s still a great deal of disagreement over StingRay’s place amongst privacy laws. The sophistication of the technology has put it ahead of the judicial curve, and ACLU attorneys like Linda Lye see StingRay as something that demands legal reassessment, as the potential for privacy violations is tremendous.