"Stingray" Cell Surveillance Devices: One More Reason for California's Location Privacy Act
Last week, LA Weekly ran a story indicating that the Los Angeles Police Department is using a device called a "Stingray" to track cell phones. Law enforcement seems to think that because these devices can track cell phones without going to the trouble of even interacting with mobile carriers, they don't need a search warrant. Please tell Governor Brown to sign the Location Privacy Act of 2012 into law and ensure that law enforcement gets a search warrant before obtaining location information, whether by using a Stingray or demanding records from cell carriers.
A Stingray is basically a fake cell tower. When a mobile phone comes within range, the Stingray can offer to connect the phone to the network so that the phone can send and receive communications. If a phone takes it up on that offer, the Stingray is able to capture the identity of the phone, which can readily be traced back to the identity of its owner. This means that Stingray devices can potentially record information about every phone that comes into range, not just those owned by targets of a criminal investigation.
Despite the potential for invasions of privacy that these devices create, law enforcement has been extremely reluctant to reveal anything at all about how the devices are used. The LAPD refused to answer questions from LA Weekly about how the devices are used. They also refused to answer the question of whether or not they obtain a search warrant before using the device—though we know from a previous case that the FBI does not always do so (though we had to fight to get that information).
This is exactly the kind of practice that we should not tolerate. When law enforcement has a legitimate need for location information, they should go before a judge and present the evidence needed to obtain a search warrant. They should not be using technology to get around the constraints of the California and U.S. Constitutions in order to track individuals—suspects and non-suspects alike—without any sort of oversight or checks and balances.
The California Location Privacy Act of 2012 was introduced this year to address this very problem. The bill is now sitting on Governor Brown's desk, waiting for his signature. Please tell him to sign this important bill and make sure that Stingrays and other police tools are used responsibly rather than without the oversight and transparency that they so desperately need.
Chris Conley is the Technology and Civil Liberties Fellow with the ACLU of Northern California.