If by any chance, you have been into a local police department for filing a public request in order to know about how cell-site simulators function in your community, there are high chances that the FBI is already aware of it. And the FBI will try to conceal such information.

These devices that have come to be known as “stingrays” can be used to find out a phone’s whereabouts, intercept calls and text messages. Stingrays are able to give information about nearby phones when locating a phone. A report by Ars stated how a couple of cities in America are presently upgrading their devices with new hardware so as to target 4G LTE phones.

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The latest revelation regarding the FBI appears from a June 2012 letter that the Law Enforcement agency wrote to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Minneapolis Star Tribune was the first one to obtain and publish it in December 2014. It is probable that similar language is present between the FBI and other local authorities who are using stingrays.

The letter states that:

“In the event that the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension receives a request pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (5 USC 552) or an equivalent state or local law, the civil or criminal discovery process, or other judicial, legislative, or administrative process, to disclose information concerning the Harris Corporation [REDACTED] the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will immediately notify the FBI of any such request telephonically and in writing in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels.”

The FBI did not reply to Ars’ request instantly for comment. In the meanwhile, the privacy activists did not see the language as they were discouraged.

The collusion by state and federal agencies is marvelous as they undermine the requests of public records which is obviously keeping the public away from the use of Stingray technology. The lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Hanni Fakhoury told Ars that a genuinely sensitive law enforcement data could definitely be redacted under the traditional public records act law. However, the belief that the work of federal government to actively become an obstacle against disclosure of records shows clearly that there is a chilling effect on achieving the data that is related to controversial surveillance tool.

Staying mum

A Californian privacy activist, Mike Katz-Lacabe submitted public record requests to the 100 biggest law enforcement agencies in the country in the beginning of this month. Up till now, only the police in Tacoma has given a notification to the FBI that relates to records request put forth by an Associated Press reporter in October 2013.

It is being determined systematically as to which law enforcement agencies have these cellular telephone surveillance and monitoring devices, Mike Katz-Lacabe told Ars through e-mail. The law enforcement agencies in the 100 largest cities in the U.S were the first ones who got his requests. The next target would be the state police departments (or public safety departments) in all of the fifty states and also the country police/sheriff departments.

He also said that the national security is sensitive to the secrecy of these devices (Stingray, KingFish, DRTbox). On the contrary, the local police departments use these as standard tools for regular criminal cases and therefore, they should be disclosed like any other law enforcement tools.

Worst-kept secret

Only documents have revealed how these law enforcement tools are used and purchased but only limited information is available as to how stingrays work and used by law enforcement agencies. The existence of body-worn stingray was revealed by some leaked documents shown by Ars in 2013. Also, a homemade device constructed for only $10000 was shown by Kristin Paget in 2010.

The worst thing is that it was a deceit made by the cops as they lied to the courts about the use of such technology. Just last month, the FBI’s position was made public by two US senators that the FBI used the stingrays in public without a warrant. Harris Corporation which has been the largest manufacturer of these devices has remained silent about the hardware capabilities.

It was emphasized by various legal experts that a federal agency like the FBI should not know whether there is any compliance of state law by a state agency.

An American Civil Liberties Union attorney, Nathan Wessler, told Ars that it is astonishing in terms of the fact that it is a very unsuitable and over-broad use of the federal authority. The more egregious part is that the FBI knows that many police departments know that the stingray are being used by them after the local police gets an approval from the FBI for purchasing and using the tool. However, when the public asks basic information about how the surveillance is done in local communities, the FBI is invoked to say that such disclosure will threaten national security and so the information should be kept confidential.

On the other hand, many believe that the FBI is doing nothing illegal by forcing the police departments to give public records request. After all, the public records do suggest that they are actually public.

An Oregon-based public records lawyer, Daniel Stotter, told Ars that sometimes it is very helpful for the FBI in term of catching the bad actors when you get put on a notification. You are not going arrested or picked which is something most believe. There is nothing frightening about making a request.

Via ArsTechnica, Featured Image via Gawker.


Waqas

Waqas Amir is a Milan-based cybersecurity journalist with a passion for covering latest happenings in cyber security and tech world. In addition to being the founder of this website, Waqas is also into gaming, reading and investigative journalism.