Commentary

05.18.15

Government Snooping On Your Cell Phone

By

privacy magnifying glass over Ohio

It’s known as Stingray, cell-site simulator and many other names.

This powerful surveillance tool is employed by 12 federal agencies, as well as 51 agencies in 21 states and the District of Columbia to capture cell phone locations, physical movements, frequencies of use, user and contact ID numbers, call destinations, etc. And it can be set to record call content and data transmissions, too.

It works by imitating a cell tower and drawing data from wireless devices. And it doesn’t distinguish between conversations of business matters, political opinions, personal affairs, or offhand comments.

Wholesale Privacy Invasion

Stingray technology is seen by law enforcement as valuable in gathering evidence against criminals, but in actuality, these devices:

  • Capture information from innocent bystanders in the vicinity of any “person of interest.”
  • Are often used without court warrants and without the knowledge of anyone who has his or her right to privacy seriously impacted by these devices.
  • Have been protected by “gag orders” prohibiting public knowledge of their operation, supposedly because such knowledge would compromise effectiveness in tracking and arresting criminals.

ACLU Action

The American Civil Liberties Union is increasingly concerned about unrestricted Stingray use in many states and the wholesale privacy invasions that result. As an example, in Florida, the ACLU recently learned from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement of more than 1,800 Stingray applications in its jurisdictions alone. And in 2014, the ACLU of Maryland initiated a case against the Baltimore City Police Department for “warrantless and deceptive use of cell phone surveillance devices,” allowing police to obtain personal information from many people’s phones.

Most of our population lives in states in which law enforcement has technology that can gather a lot of sensitive personal data from citizens’ cell phoneswithout a warrant and without their knowledge or permission!

Coming to Ohio?

So far, there’s no confirmed use of Stingray technology by Ohio law enforcement agencies, but its use in three bordering states almost assures Ohio residents have been unknowingly impacted by the devices, given their range. Although the Ohio Supreme Court ruled “warrantless police search of a cell phone violates the Fourth Amendment,” that case centered on the physical confiscation of a phone as evidence. Ohio has no laws specifically restricting Stingray devices.

The ACLU worked in the past (before Stingrays were commercialized) to propose restrictions on how law enforcement could get location tracking information from telecommunications companies. But now, this technology makes such restrictions moot because the police, by using the technology, effectively remove any need on their part to contact telecom companies.

Get Informed

To learn more about this encroachment of Fourth Amendment rights, read whatever you can on cell-site simulators. It’s in your interest as an Ohioan concerned about your privacy rights.

The ACLU of Ohio focused on cell phone privacy issues and related new monitoring technologies at our 2014 Biennial Conference. Watch our site for additional developments. And talk to your neighbors and friends about the technology and its capabilities.

It’s not being paranoid. It’s being informed.

Fred Ross is a volunteer with the ACLU of Ohio.

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