Law Enforcement Tracks Phones With Phony Cell Towers
by Leslie Meredith, TechNewsDaily Senior Writer
July 12 2012 07:30 AM ET
CREDIT: Shutterstock: Robert J. Daveant
This week, a report ordered by Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) raised a brouhaha by detailing how wireless carriers had handed over data on more than a million customers in response to law enforcement requests last year.
But what happens when law enforcement uses its own tracking equipment? It results in the same indiscriminate data collection from anyone near a suspect.
The FBI has used a device known as a stingray for more than 15 years, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center. It is designed to simulate a cell tower and intercept signals. Some local police departments also use stingrays, but they're a pricey proposition. Gilbert, Arizona, population 208,453, purchased one for $244,000, according to the ACLU.
The data collected from a stingray session is similar to what law enforcement receives when they ask for a cell tower dump, which includes all phone numbers and names associated with phones that connect with a cell tower over a specified period of time. Neither surveillance method distinguishes between suspects and innocent cellular customers. Location and calling data is collected from every smartphone, laptop and tablet connected to the cellular tower — real or fake.
Because stingray technology captures only location, not conversation or text messages, it is not considered a wiretapping device and thus does not require a warrant to use. However, these laws, such as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, were passed long before GPS and even cellphones themselves became commonplace.
A legislative debate is building around the issue: Is a point-by-point record of your whereabouts any less deserving of protection than your text messages are?