10/3/2011 12:27 PM ET|
FBI's secret phone tracker on trial
Stingrays allow law enforcement, including the FBI, to find a mobile phone and track people's locations. Now a fraud case is raising questions about the proper court approval.
For more than a year, federal authorities pursued a man they called simply "the Hacker." Only after using a little-known cellphone tracking device -- a stingray -- were they able to zero in on a California home and make the arrest.
Stingrays are designed to locate a mobile phone even when it's not being used to make a call. The FBI considers the devices to be so critical that it has a policy of deleting the data gathered in their use, mainly to keep suspects in the dark about their capabilities, an FBI official told The Wall Street Journal in response to inquiries.
A stingray's role in nabbing the alleged "Hacker" -- Daniel David Rigmaiden -- is shaping up as a possible test of the legal standards for using these devices in investigations. The FBI says it obtains appropriate court approval to use the device.
Stingrays are one of several new technologies used by law enforcement to track people's locations, often without a search warrant. These techniques are driving a constitutional debate about whether the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures but was written before the digital age, is keeping pace with the times.
On Nov. 8, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether police need a warrant before secretly installing a GPS device on a suspect's car and tracking him for an extended period. In both the Senate and House, new bills would require a warrant before tracking a cellphone's location.
And last week in U.S. District Court of Arizona, Judge David G. Campbell heard a request by Rigmaiden, who is facing fraud charges, to have information about the government's secret techniques disclosed to him so he can use it in his defense. Rigmaiden maintains his innocence and says that using stingrays to locate devices in homes without a valid warrant "disregards the United States Constitution" and is illegal.
His argument has caught the judge's attention. In a February hearing, according to a transcript, Campbell asked the prosecutor, "Were there warrants obtained in connection with the use of this device?"
The prosecutor, Frederick A. Battista, said the government obtained a "court order that satisfied (the) language" in the federal law on warrants. The judge then asked how an order or warrant could have been obtained without telling the judge what technology was being used. Battista said, "It was a standard practice, your honor."
Campbell responded that it "can be litigated whether those orders were appropriate."
The government has argued it should be able to withhold details about the tool used to locate Rigmaiden, according to documents filed by the prosecution. In a statement to the Journal, Sherry Sabol, the chief of the science and technology office for the FBI's Office of General Counsel, says that information about stingrays and related technology is "considered law-enforcement sensitive, since its public release could harm law-enforcement efforts by compromising future use of the equipment."
The prosecutor, Battista, told the judge that the government worries that disclosure would make the gear "subject to being defeated or avoided or detected."
A stingray works by mimicking a cellphone tower, getting a phone to connect to it and measuring signals from the phone. It lets the stingray operator "ping," or send a signal to, a phone and locate it as long as it is powered on, according to documents reviewed by the Journal. The device has various uses, including helping police locate suspects and aiding search-and-rescue teams in finding people lost in remote areas or buried in rubble after an accident.
The government says "stingray" is a generic term. In Rigmaiden's case, it remains unclear which device or devices were actually used.
The best known stingray maker is Florida-based defense contractor Harris Corp. A spokesman for Harris declined to comment.
Harris holds trademarks registered between 2002 and 2008 on several devices, including the StingRay, StingRay II, AmberJack, KingFish, TriggerFish and LoggerHead. Similar devices are available from other manufacturers. According to a Harris document, its devices are sold only to law-enforcement and government agencies.
Some of the gadgets look surprisingly old-fashioned, with a smattering of switches and lights scattered across a panel roughly the size of a shoebox, according to photos of a Harris-made StingRay reviewed by the Journal. The devices can be carried by hand or mounted in cars, allowing investigators to move around quickly.
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"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." -- Fourth Amendment to the United States ConstitutionThis tells the government (at ALL levels) that THEY are NOT above the Law...
If we loose this then We the People become nothing more than chattel...
The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing when they put controls on the government. They had experienced centuries of abuse by Kings who did whatever they wanted to. The standard excuse these days is terrorism but there is no "war or terrorism" exemption in the Bill oif Rights for war or terrorism.
When all citizens can be treated like criminals, the reasons the Founding Fathers had for creating this country are gone.
I'm not anti government but I do believe in controls over government.
In court, you have the "right" to question and meet all accusers. This is one, and the data which was used to arrest should be, under the law, provided also to the defense to mitigate it's supposed truth, and accuracy.
No we got it, and you can't refute it bullcrap in America, or is it now Amerika?
Two police came in a bar in Houston and arrested some guy there, who
either jumped bond or didn't show up in court...yes they are using the devices..
They said they tracked him by his cell phone...
It will be a cold day in hell before they put a chip in my body.I will have to be dead first.
It seems like there should be an app for that....lol
I just need to design a cloaking app and make a bunch of money...
Sounds a lot like fascism to me. What's next? A tattooed forearm? Just wondering. What makes you think the government has a right to monitor every move you make from cradle to grave in this country? Don't like tattoos? How about a subcutaneous chip inserted at birth instead? Somewhere I read we still have a Constitution against that kind of police state meddling crap...but I guess the Patriot Act I and II dispensed with that. Welcome to America!
What's next could be a replay of Soylent Green...or is that one over the reader's head?.
The FBI also has technology to use your cell phone as a microphone. Even if it's turned off they can still turn the phone on and use it as a microphone and they can also use the camera. It doesn't get publicized much but they used it on a mob case in NY a couple of years ago. They need a court order to do it but what's to stop them from using it otherwise as long as it's not used in court.
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