Critics Questioning FBI’s Use of Cell Phone Tracker

Posted at 5:21 PM, May 23, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-07 12:01:44-04

Since the FBI was founded over 100 years ago in 1908, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has always used the highest forms of technology to track down prospective criminals. One of the latest devices employed by the FBI is a secretive cell phone tracker, and it has some rights groups questioning its legality.

The “Stingray”, as it’s called, functions as a “cell-site simulator,” according to recently released court documents. The technology uses a mobile signal that deceives cell phones into hopping onto a fake network. Once a connection to the bogus network is established, mobile phones send signals back to the tower every 7-15 seconds whether one places a call or not, per the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).


However, many innocent people’s cell phones also latch onto this network simply because they placed a call within a short distance of the quasi-network, and it has critics asking if it violates the fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizures.


Documents show that the FBI has been employing cellphone-tracking systems for almost two decades, and of course, the bureau would prefer that the use of this technology stay secret and private, as they’ve released little information about Stingrays during the time of its existence. EFF estimates the FBI is withholding 25,000 pages of information on the equipment in question. While FBI has released some bits of documentation on the covert cell phone technology, those pages are heavily redacted.

An ongoing court case in Arizona, U.S. v. Rigmaiden, outlines some of the concerns about the Stingray’s use. The device was employed to monitor and track down Daniel Rigmaiden who was charged with conspiracy, wire fraud, and other crimes. In March, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote an amicus brief that argues the FBI purposefully masked information about Stingray, and in extension, prevented the judge from making an informed decision.


However, two weeks ago a judge ruled that the FBI was within their boundaries and said that Rigmaiden could not “credibly argue that he had a legitimate expectation of privacy” because he had allegedly paid for his apartment and computer using false identities. Hence, “no Fourth Amendment violation occurred,”according to the judge’s ruling.


Appalled by the result, ACLU’s staff attorney Linda Lye wrote, “Today’s ruling missed the opportunity to create an important legal precedent on electronic surveillance. As new surveillance technology emerges, the government needs to err on the side of providing more, not less, information to magistrates,” she said in a blog post earlier this month. “Technology evolves more rapidly than the law. Today’s decision sends the troubling message to the government that it’s alright to withhold information from courts about new technology, which means that the law will have an even harder time catching up.”