Cops Quietly Using Secret Spy Tool to Find Suspects
Critics say cell-tower simulators violate civil liberties, 4th Amendment
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 23, 2015 3:39 PM CST
Police departments nationwide have released incomplete details about a phone-surveillance tool known as a StingRay and have blacked out or denied contracts with the device’s maker.   (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

(Newser) – A device police can use to pinpoint a suspect's location with what some say is 100% reliability may just sound like the latest cool tool in a cop's catch-a-criminal arsenal. But the surveillance instrument used by the Tallahassee PD since 2007 is worrying the ACLU, judges, and citizens who say it's a violation of civil rights and the Fourth Amendment, the Washington Post reports. These so-called cell-site or cell-tower simulators (also known as IMSI catchers and often sold under the StingRay brand) trick cellphones within range into connecting to them as they would to an actual cellphone tower; police may then potentially access location and communication data from any of the "fooled" phones, as per the Post. However, when the device is flicked on, service to other phones may be disrupted, batteries drain more quickly, and info is culled from not just the suspect, but also other phones in range.

The ACLU reports that Florida law enforcement agencies have spent more than $3 million on this equipment since 2008, and it's spread beyond the Sunshine State: The organization has been able to ID 48 agencies in 20 states and DC that own the simulators. Although the Tallahassee PD and FBI say the unit can only be used with a court order (and they don't collect call content or text messages with it), judges, attorneys, and the public are creeped out by the secrecy: Cops often cite an FBI "nondisclosure agreement" and refuse to explain how the technology works, saying it will compromise the device's efficacy, the Post notes. However, a public defender who took on the case of an 18-year-old busted via the device for robbery called the "scooping up [of] all manner of information from a target cellphone, as well as nearly all cellphones in the general area" nothing more than "exploratory rummaging." Click for the full report.