Every few seconds, your phone transmits information about your location and antenna status to cell towers in the area. Devious hooligans can siphon traffic and spoof protocols to steathily record your phone’s data.
The Department of Homeland Security has a different way of collecting lots of data: essentially sending a flying “stingray” (also called a “dirtbox”) to act as a cell tower and track phone owners’ locations and general identifying attributes.
Not as insidious as the former method, but these “dirtboxes” have been flying as part of a secret spy program for seven years.
A House subcommittee grilled DHS officials today over the practice which will codified in new rules for the department’s agencies — those include the Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Generally, warrants will be required for use of a “stingray.” Such a device can assist law enforcement in catching a fugitive on the lam. In “emergency situations” — Presidential security has been cited as one — or in cases where obtaining a warrant would be impractical, DHS may fly a mission without a warrant.
A DHS representative said that the agencies’ tracking would not grab communication contents, just the location and ownership data of smartphones. It was also assured that warrantless collections of data would take place in exceptional circumstances.
A member of the subcommittee was bothered by the fact that DHS provides local police departments funds to buy Stingrays for their own use. Those departments — none of them identified, therefore, it is unknown how many there are — may not require warrants to fly them.
Other federal agencies such as the FBI have recently revised their policies similar to this one. The Justice Department’s representative on Capitol Hill would not say if it used “stingrays” to collect communication content before its policy change in September.
The ACLU had filed suit against the Justice Department in 2009 over warrantless wiretapping and has investigated which law enforcement agencies have “stingrays.”
“Dirtbox” tracking had led to the first capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, but guilt-by-location-association concerns remain with privacy advocates.