ICE Agents Are Using Battlefield Surveillance Technology To Snoop On Cell Phones

June 14, 2017

The Huffington Post

A federal warrant unsealed in May reveals how immigration authorities are using an invasive cell phone snooping tool, known as a “Stingray,” once confined to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the first evidence of the device being used for immigration enforcement, and it highlights the need for greater transparency about how state and local police deploy similar tools.

As the Detroit News first reported, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent obtained a warrant to deploy the Stingray, also called a “cell site simulator,” to find a 23-year-old undocumented restaurant worker from El Salvador accused of illegally re-entering the United States. The case is part of a dramatic uptick in immigration arrests during the first three months of the Trump administration.

Stingrays are fake cell phone towers about the size of a briefcase that force all phones in the area to connect to it – and by extension, law enforcement – instead of the phone company. They cause nearby phones to transmit unique identification numbers and can be used to accurately locate a particular device or even intercept its communications. Stingrays collect data from all phones in the area, not just the target phone, raising privacy concerns over what happens to the personal information that is collected incidentally.

Originally designed for military and intelligence agencies to fight terrorism overseas, Stingrays have proliferated domestically in the years since 9/11. Federal agencies, including ICE, have had them since at least 2008, but little was publicly known about why or how they were used. State and local police departments purchased them too, often through federal counter-terrorism grants. But they kept their existence shrouded in secrecy due to non-disclosure agreements with the FBI. That secrecy wound up jeopardizing thousands of prosecutions after word of the devices eventually came to light.

In 2015, both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security (which includes ICE) issued policies restricting the use of Stingrays. Agents must now obtain a judicial warrant based on probable cause and include important back-end privacy protections, like a requirement that non-responsive data be deleted. But those policies are not law and they do not apply to state and local law enforcement agencies using the devices on their own. That is a huge gap given that at least 68 state and local police departments around the country now own Stingrays, including the New York City Police Department (NYPD).

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