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Federal investigators' use of Stingrays to hunt for an undocumented immigration marks "the latest sign of mission creep in domestic deployment of battlefield-strength surveillance technology," said EFF's Adam Schwartz. (Photo: Håkan Dahlström/flickr/cc)

Trump Admin. Now Deploying Controversial Surveillance Tool in Immigration Crackdown

Detroit News reports on "troubling" use of Stingrays in hunt for undocumented immigrant

Andrea Germanos

As the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans continue to push for a harsher immigration crackdown, new reporting reveals that FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents employed a controversial surveillance technology known as Stingrays to hunt down undocumented immigrants.

According to Electronic Frontier Foundation's Adam Schwartz, the The Detroit News report, based on a federal search warrant affidavit, marks "the latest sign of mission creep in domestic deployment of battlefield-strength surveillance technology."

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has explained, the devices, obtained by police to purportedly tackle terrorism,

typically mimic the cell phone towers that your phone connects to. They trick cell phones within their range into thinking they are a legitimate cell phone tower and force phones to connect by masquerading as the strongest nearby cell signal. This enables the user of the cell site simulator to identify phones in the area, the location of their possessors, and in some cases to intercept metadata and/or actual content of cell phone transmissions (including data, calls, or text messages). Even if law enforcement is targeting a particular phone or person, it will incidentally collect sensitive information from all other phones in the area that connect to it. In some cases, this may also prevent nearby bystanders from making calls. So, the use of this technology compromises the privacy and safety of large numbers of ordinary people.

In this case, The Detroit News reported, the

secret device [either a Stingray or an upgraded version of them known as Hailstorm] was used in March by a team of FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Metro Detroit to find Rudy Carcamo-Carranza, 23, a twice-deported restaurant worker from El Salvador whose only brushes with the law involve drunken driving allegations and a hit-and-run crash.

"Few law enforcement spying technologies are a greater threat to digital liberty: by their very nature, [cell site simulators or] CSSs seize information from all of the people who happen to be nearby. So government should be barred, for example, from using CSSs to hunt down traffic scofflaws, petty thieves, and undocumented immigrants," Schwartz wrote.

The ACLU expressed concern the surveillance tool was used in this way, and filed a Freedom of Information Act with ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection seeking information on how the Stingray devises are being used, with what frequency, and how bystanders' data is being protected.

"We're troubled to see evidence of ICE using invasive surveillance equipment for immigration enforcement purposes, especially given this administration's hyper-aggressive approach in this area," said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler. "It's crucial that the government release this information so the public can understand how immigration authorities are using Stingrays and what limits they're placing on this technology."


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