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'Stingray': Increased and Secretive Cell Phone Surveillance by Local Police Raises Alarms

ACLU calls technology the "electronic equivalent of dragnet searches" prohibited by the Fourth Amendment

Sarah Lazare, staff writer

Police across the United States are refusing to disclose information to the public about a controversial "stingray" device that allows them to intercept cellular phone communications.

According to Associated Press journalist Jack Gillum,

A Stingray device tricks all cellphones in an area into electronically identifying themselves and transmitting data to police rather than the nearest phone company's tower. Because documents about Stingrays are regularly censored, it's not immediately clear what information the devices could capture, such as the contents of phone conversations and text messages, what they routinely do capture based on how they're configured or how often they might be used.

In 2011 the FBI acknowledged that the stingray technology sweeps up cell-phone users who are not considered suspects. Yet, little is known about the technology, and police departments have repeatedly rejected public records requests from media outlets in California, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

Gillum reports:

journalist Beau Hodai and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sued the Tucson Police Department, alleging in court documents that police didn't comply with the state's public-records law because they did not fully disclose Stingray-related records and allowed Harris Corp. to dictate what information could be made public.

The ACLU is among those who have raised serious concerns about the technology and the manner in which law enforcement agencies have continued to hide the nature of their use.

"There is a real question as to whether stingrays can ever be used in a constitutional fashion," argued Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a blog post on the issue last week.

The technology, she continued, is "the electronic equivalent of dragnet 'general searches' prohibited by the Fourth Amendment. But unfortunately, there are currently no statutes or regulations that specifically address how and under what circumstances stingrays can be used, and very little caselaw."


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