With a "Stingray," Cops Can Turn Your Mobile Devices Into Tracking Beacons

It's become standard in spy thrillers for heroes to treat their cell phones as glowing red beacons that advertise their locations. Movie-goers know that action heroes should yank the battery from their phones if they don't want to be tracked. What's less well known is that reality long ago caught up with and surpassed cinema. Using devices that essentially mimic cell phone towers, police — or anybody with one of these widgets — can get a fix on your mobile device, whether or not it's in use, and thereby on your gadget-obsessed self.

Generically salled "Stingrays," which is actually a brand name for one such International Mobile Subscriber Identity locator (you can see why "Stingray" stuck as a monicker), the Electronic Frontier Foundation says these devices work thusly:

A Stingray works by masquerading as a cell phone tower—to which your mobile phone sends signals to every 7 to 15 seconds whether you are on a call or not— and tricks your phone into connecting to it. As a result, the government can figure out who, when and to where you are calling, the precise location of every device within the range, and with some devices, even capture the content of your conversations.

Specifically, says the Wall Street Journal, "the stingray operator [can] 'ping,' or send a signal to, a phone and locate it as long as it is powered on." The Journal offers a handy visual aid to flesh out how they work:

Stingrays are in the news now because they're being used in law-enforcement cases with very sketchy legal authorization. In Maricopa County, Arizona, according to the Journal:

Sgt. Spurgin says officers often obtain court orders, but not necessarily search warrants, when using the device. To obtain a search warrant from a court, officers as a rule need to show "probable cause," which is generally defined as a reasonable belief, based on factual evidence, that a crime was committed. Lesser standards apply to other court orders.

Stopping short of full-on warrants is a matter of policy nationally, since "FBI and Department of Justice officials have also said that investigators don't need search warrants." That slippery legal authorization for tracking cell phones is at issue in United States v. Rigmaiden, in which the EFF and the ACLU have submitted an amicus brief (PDF). In that case, a court had ordered Verizon to locate the defendant, and authorities interpreted that order as authorization to use a Stingray themselves.

Complicating matters, while a Stingray is in use, it also locates every other nearby mobile device sharing that network, potentially compromising the privacy of a great many people as collateral damage.

So remember, folks. Those mobile devices we've all grown so dependent upon may be every bit as treacherous as the movies would have us believe.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    This is why Stringer Bell taught me to always use a burner.

  • T||

    I'll just use my Obamaphone. It's a free burner.

  • Drake||

    Yes! And Walter White taught me that after you call a hit man or drug lord, you have to dramatically break it and toss it in a dumpster.

  • R C Dean||

    Just so you don't toss it over the bridge without making sure it actually hits the water.

  • SugarFree||

    Much like John Berryman.

  • JW||

    Couldn't we cross connect the ionic capacitors in the phone and generate a feedback signal that would overload their detection equipment?

  • ||

    Maybe you could generate a tachyon field too. That always solves plot complications.

  • BakedPenguin||

    First you have to modulate the deflector dish frequency.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    I wish you people would stop fucking with the frequencies already.

  • sarcasmic||

    What's the frequency, Kenneth?

  • kinnath||

    huh?

  • sarcasmic||

    huh?

    google is your friend.

  • kinnath||

    I was just napping and thought I heard someone call my name.

  • JW||

    I've never been able to get that app to work.

  • ||

    If we reroute the power from the dilithium crystals through the transporter bay, we could project the tachyon field into Counselor Troy's boobs and recombobulate the whatchamacallit!

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    I was stranded on a planet, Just me and Spock
    We met a nasty nazi alien who locked our asses up
    We found a hunk of crystal and a metal piece of bed
    We made a laser phaser gun and shot him in the head

    Bust a move, Tog

    I was standing on the bridge when Sulu came to me
    His eyes were full of tears he said "Captain, can't you see
    the ship is gonna blow do something I beseech"
    I grabbed a tribble and some chewing gum and stopped the warp core breach

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    And I say,
    Bounce a graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish
    Thats the way we do things, lad, we're making shit up as we wish
    The Klingons and the Romulans pose no threat to us
    'Cause if we find we're in a bind we just make some shit up

    And though he's just a child, and some think him a twit
    Wesley is the master when it comes to making up some shit
    He's the guy you want with you when you go out in space
    Now if only he could beam those pimples off his face

    And if you're at a party on the starship Enterprise
    And the karaoke player just plain old up and dies
    Set up a neutrino field inside a can of peas
    Hold on to Geordi's visor and sing into Data's knee

    And I say
    Bounce a graviton particle beam off the main deflector dish
    Thats the way we do things lad, we're making shit up as we wish
    The Klingons and the Romulans pose no threat to us
    'Cause if we find we're in a bind we just make some shit up

  • ||

  • Pro Libertate||

    Do you think all of TNG was actually a holodeck fantasy?

  • SugarFree||

    No, it's the daydream of a little boy with autism as he gazes into a snowglobe.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I thought that was Citizen Kane.

  • SugarFree||

    Star Wars is just the space-dream of a Wookie baby space-dying of space-herpes.

  • Pro Libertate||

    No, the first movie happened. The rest was just a post-coital dream of Luke's. And yes, the coitus was with Leia, who isn't his sister.

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    duh

    recalibrate the phase array

  • Pro Libertate||

    I'm making everything out of phase.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    COMPUTER, RECOGNIZE AUTHORIZATION FIST ALPHA ALPHA TWO AND DISABLE ALL COMMAND FUNCTIONS.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Strictly speaking, you can drown out their receivers with noise in the operating band, but that will either require a directional antenna pointed at their candyvan or drowning out the signal of every cellphone in the area.

  • JEP||

    "you can drown out their receivers with noise in the operating band"

    you could have just said "jamming"...

  • Brett L||

    Mobile, directional, localized EMPs. Also good for destroying the equipment of those annoying asshats who turn their stereos up so loud you can hear them coming from a mile away. Unfortunately, my current prototype requires a "Davy Crockett" tactical backpack nuke to be portable right now. I'm hoping to get it down to something that looks like a ghostbusters proton pack.

  • ||

    Why worry? Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.

  • Brett L||

    Heh. I took out the sentence "Licensing is gonna be a bitch, though." Oh, shit. I've been around HyR too long. Next I'll start dreaming in politician slashfic.

  • John||

    Antonin Scalia assures me police would never abuse this devise. Their professionalism will prevent it. And he is fat, Italian and went to a better school than I did. So he knows.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Just like nobody used shortwave radios to listen in on cordless phone conversations in the 1980's.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Yes, his Nude Professionalism.

  • sarcasmic||

    "You have nothing to fear if you aren't doing anything wrong."

  • R C Dean||

    Obviously, because we could assign a cop to track any individual person, there is no reason why we can't track everybody, all the time. There's just no difference between tracking someone based on individualized suspicion, and tracking everybody, just because, well, fuck you, that's why.

  • SugarFree||

    The Tulpa Virus is spreading! Burn him! Burn the infected!

  • NoVAHockey||

    This is basically the situation in my neighborhood with a push for license plate readers.

  • ||

    Stingrays are in the news now because they're being used in law-enforcement cases with very sketchy legal authorization. In Maricopa County, Arizona...

    Stop right there.

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    And so many people love that asshole, "Sheriff Joe".

  • BakedPenguin||

    Yeah. I've stopped being surprised by any news out of Maricopa or Prince George (MD) counties.

  • sarcasmic||

    Or Florida cops.

  • Paul.||

    Arizona is totally going to legalize pot, and vote for Sheriff Joe...at the same time.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Lucius Fox just needs to type his name in.

  • Restoras||

    *note to self*

    When leaving my hotel room while in Vegas, leave the cell phone behind.

  • SanDimas||

    This is a major problem with the way phone manufacturers deviate from the GSM standard. Because a "Stingray" cannot possibly have the encryption keys necessary for successful 2-way encrypted communication, the handset will need to connect to the false tower in an unencrypted state. Under the GSM standard your phone is supposed to warn you that your transmissions are not encrypted or the phone should not even connect to the "tower".

    While connected to a Stingray your phone will not be on the network, and thus unable to receive calls. If you dial out the Stingray would have to hand you off to a legitimate tower, losing it's connection with the handset. If that GSM two-way transmission is encrypted (which it should be) the actual voice would be near impossible to break out on the fly.

    Now, that is for the GSM standard. I know less about other standards, such as CDMA that Verizon uses for it's 2G voice. I am of the understanding it is much harder to emulate a tower without disrupting phone service for all users in the locality. CDMA, however, is unencrypted so despite there being a "reasonable expectation of privacy" while using your phone, any fool with a scanner can hear your conversation.

  • laurenscott||

    LADP have used the allegedly terror investigation only StingRay technology and spied upon non-suspects. They are spying on the cellphone conversations of naive bystanders. Evidently tech to monitor terror suspects, StingRay has been used quite differently. Read more about the article at: personalmoneynetwork.com

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement