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Court rules stingray evidence permissible for locating suspect

Thu 24 Nov 2016

A federal appeals court ruled today that the use of a cell phone surveillance device, commonly called a ‘stingray’, may be permissible even in situations where law enforcement has not obtained a warrant or the warrant is invalid.

A stingray is the common name for an IMSI-catcher, a mobile eavesdropping device that simulates the action of a regular cell phone tower, sending out a signal strong enough to encourage mobile devices to connect to it. The stingray can be used to pin down the location of a person wanted by law enforcement by capturing cell phone location data as if it were a tower.

Critics of the use of stingray devices have likened the stingray’s method of luring and capturing cell phone location data to a Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) hack.

In the case before the court, the defendant argued that while the police had a warrant to track his location, their application to the judge was misleading, implying that they intended to use phone company records rather a stingray to pin down his location, and that omitting this information invalidated the warrant.

The court ruled that the status of the search warrant was immaterial as the suspect was caught in a public place, where he would have little expectation of privacy. In fact, the court said that “a fugitive cannot be picky” about how he is located, and that a suspect “cannot complain of how the police learned his location.”

The Department of Justice did say last September that it would seek a warrant prior to using stingrays, but there has been no determination as yet as to whether that warrant is constitutionally required.

The outcome of this case in particular did not rest on whether or not the stingray evidence was valid. The circumstances of how the individual’s location information was obtained did not materially affect the validity of the evidence against the defendant. So while the court did address the use of stingrays to pinpoint suspect locations for law enforcement it held back from making sweeping determinations as to the application of stingrays and warrants in future cases.

The use of stingrays in criminal investigations has been contested by consumer and privacy rights advocate groups including the ACLU, who have denounced the ‘invasive cell phone surveillance devices’ due to the fact that when operational, stingrays capture the cell phone location data of innocent bystanders nearby. The ACLU tracks the use of stingrays by law enforcement officials by state, but notes that this information is closely guarded by police, and is advocating for better transparency.

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government legal news privacy security U.S.
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