Police in Florida have, at the request of the U.S. Marshals Service, been deliberately deceiving judges and defendants about their use of a controversial surveillance tool to track suspects, according to newly obtained emails.
At the request of the Marshals Service, the officers using so-called stingrays have been routinely telling judges, in applications for warrants, that they obtained knowledge of a suspect’s location from a “confidential source” rather than disclosing that the information was gleaned using a stingray.
A series of five emails (.pdf) written in April, 2009, were obtained today by the American Civil Liberties Union showing police officials discussing the deception. The organization has filed Freedom of Information Act requests with police departments throughout Florida seeking information about their use of stingrays.
“Concealing the use of stingrays deprives defendants of their right to challenge unconstitutional surveillance and keeps the public in the dark about invasive monitoring by local police,” the ACLU writes in a blog post about the emails. “And local and federal law enforcement should certainly not be colluding to hide basic and accurate information about their practices from the public and the courts.”
The U.S. Marshals Service did not respond to a call for comment.
Stingrays, also known as IMSI catchers, simulate a cellphone tower and trick any nearby mobile devices into connecting with them, thereby revealing their location. When mobile phones—and other wireless communication devices—connect to the stingray, the device can see and record their unique ID numbers and traffic data, as well as information that points to the device’s location. By moving the stingray around, authorities can triangulate the device’s location with greater precision than they can using data obtained from a fixed tower location.
The government has long asserted it doesn’t need a probable-cause warrant to use stingrays because the devices don’t collect the content of phone calls and text messages, but instead operate like pen-registers and trap-and-traces, collecting the equivalent of header information. The ACLU and others argue that the devices are more invasive than a trap-and-trace and should require a warrant. By not obtaining a warrant to use stingrays, however, police can conceal from judges and defendant’s their use of the devices and prevent the public from learning how the technology is employed.