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Privacy activists and the general public say the devices threaten "civil liberties, communications infrastructure, and potentially national security." (Photo: gato-gato-gato/flickr/cc)

Secret Stingray Manuals Reveal How Spying Tools Leave 'No Place to Hide'

The Intercept publishes instruction manuals detailing how to build and use cell phone surveillance devices

Nadia Prupis

The technology manufacturing company Harris Corporation has fought to keep the public from knowing about how its surveillance devices work—specifically, the controversial cell phone spying tools known as Stingrays—but The Intercept on Monday published about 200 pages of Harris Corp. instruction manuals detailing how to build and use them.

Harris has argued that releasing information about Stingrays could help criminals. But privacy activists and the general public say the devices threaten "civil liberties, communications infrastructure, and potentially national security," especially as wireless capability extends more and more into our personal lives, The Intercept's Sam Biddle explains.

He writes:

The documents also make clear just how easy it is to execute a bulk surveillance regime from the trunk of a car: A Gemini "Quick Start Guide," which runs to 54 pages, contains an entire chapter on logging, which "enables the user to listen and log over the air messages that are being transmitted between the Base Transceiver Station (BTS) and the Mobile Subscriber (MS)." It's not clear exactly what sort of metadata or content would be captured in such logging. The "user" here, of course, is a police officer.

[....] In order to maintain an uninterrupted connection to a target's phone, the Harris software also offers the option of intentionally degrading (or "redirecting") someone’s phone onto an inferior network, for example, knocking a connection from LTE to 2G[.]

Richard Tynan, a technologist with Privacy International, told Biddle that the latest version of the Stingray and similar devices can monitor up to four cell towers simultaneously, and certain add-ons allow it to spy on 2G, 3G, and 4G networks at the same time as well.

"As more of our infrastructure, homes, environment, and transportation are connected wirelessly to the internet, such technologies really do pose a massive risk to public safety and security," Tynan said. "There really isn't any place for innocent people to hide from a device such as this."

Stingrays operate by simulating cell phone towers, which tricks nearby phones into connecting with them, allowing police and other law enforcement agencies to monitor incoming and outgoing calls and texts and other communications. They also have the capability to interfere with communications, which can be dangerous in cases of emergency calls. A recent complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said the Baltimore Police Department, which used Stingrays to monitor residents without a warrant, violated the law through racial discrimination and willfully interfered with cell phone calls.


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