Stingrays: What defense attorneys need to know

Law enforcement agencies nationwide have been secretly using IMSI (international mobile subscriber identity) catchers to track suspects through their cell phones. Typically this surveillance occurs without a warrant or court order. Also called “Stingray,” this device tracks cell phones using the radiofrequency signals radiating from the phone. The device is a shoebox-sized receptor that mimics a cell phone tower and tricks the cell phone into transferring its location and other information to the surveillance device. Its ability to be concealed and its mobility allow police officers to track suspects in many situations and also in real time. Compared to the traditional method of subpoenaing a suspect’s phone records and tracing the call locations accordingly, this technology allows law enforcement much broader real-time locating and tracking capability. Stingray is also capable of connecting to bystanders’ cell phones near the targeted cell phone and relaying their locations and private information back to the investigating agency.

According to records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, police departments in Wilmington, Durham, and Charlotte have been appropriated funds for purchasing Stingray equipment. Use of Stingray by the Wilmington Police Department has been the subject of investigation by local media outlets as covered here, here, and here. However, Stingray’s manufacturer, the Harris Corporation, requires purchasing agencies to sign a nondisclosure agreement which prevents the law enforcement agency from disclosing how the instrument works or whether the department is using it for surveillance. In Florida, law enforcement officers have hidden the use of Stingrays from courts by stating that a suspect’s location information was obtained from a “confidential source” rather than saying it was obtained through use of a Stingray.

The ACLU of Northern California has created a guide to inform defense attorneys about the Fourth Amendment implications of this controversial device and to explain how law enforcement agencies are currently using Stingray to track suspects. To learn more about Stingray’s functionality, how to identify when Stingray has been used in a case, and potential legal arguments, click here to read the ACLU Guide for Criminal Defense Attorneys.


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