FBI Phone-Tracking Tool More Intrusive Than Previously Believed, Court Case Reveals

Reason 24/7ReasonWe learned recently that the feds use "stingray" phone-tracking technology — devices that mimic cellphone towers to ping mobile devices and so locate them — without informing judges of what they're doing. Instead,  when they bother seeking judicial permission, they generally conceal requests for permission to track mobile devices as paperwork for old-fashioned, less-intrusive pen registers. The practice is so common that higher-ups have no idea how often stingray technology is actually used in the field.

Now, courtesy of legal proceedings involving the technology, we find out that stingray phone tracking is even more intrusive than suspected. At least in this case, Verizon was persuaded to remotely reprogramm an air card to make it more responsive to the FBI's tracking efforts — without a warrant or the full knowledge of a judge as to what was being done.

From Wired:

A legal fight over the government’s use of a secret surveillance tool has provided new insight into how the controversial tool works and the extent to which Verizon Wireless aided federal agents in using it to track a suspect.

Court documents in a case involving accused identity thief Daniel David Rigmaiden describe how the wireless provider reached out remotely to reprogram an air card the suspect was using in order to make it communicate with the government’s surveillance tool so that he could be located.

Rigmaiden, who is accused of being the ringleader of a $4 million tax fraud operation, asserts in court documents that in July 2008 Verizon surreptitiously reprogrammed his air card to make it respond to incoming voice calls from the FBI and also reconfigured it so that it would connect to a fake cell site, or stingray, that the FBI was using to track his location.

Air cards are devices that plug into a computer and use the wireless cellular networks of phone providers to connect the computer to the internet. The devices are not phones and therefore don’t have the ability to receive incoming calls, but in this case Rigmaiden asserts that Verizon reconfigured his air card to respond to surreptitious voice calls from a landline controlled by the FBI.

The FBI calls, which contacted the air card silently in the background, operated as pings to force the air card into revealing its location.

In order to do this, Verizon reprogrammed the device so that when an incoming voice call arrived, the card would disconnect from any legitimate cell tower to which it was already connected, and send real-time cell-site location data to Verizon, which forwarded the data to the FBI. This allowed the FBI to position its stingray in the neighborhood where Rigmaiden resided. The stingray then “broadcast a very strong signal” to force the air card into connecting to it, instead of reconnecting to a legitimate cell tower, so that agents could then triangulate signals coming from the air card and zoom-in on Rigmaiden’s location.

Local police departments often play "follow the leader" with federal agencies, especially the FBI, when it comes to legal standards and behavior — including surveillance. The Los Angeles Police Department has already been caught using stingray technology as a routine tool, describing it in court papers as "pen register/trap and trace" just like their friends in D.C. If the FBI gets away with its actions in the Rigmaiden case, expect indiscriminate phone tracking to become a common practice.

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  • Almanian!||

    OT: I'm watching coverage of a stabbing that occurred at some college. Appears to be in the southwest.

    Fourteen vics - two refused treatment. Alleged perp in custody.

    I await the urgent calls for banning Assault Cutlery to start in 3, 2, 1....

  • Pro Libertate||

    It seems odd, at first blush, that he could stab that many people.

  • Paul.||

    At 10:15 that morning, 37-year-old former janitor Mamoru Takuma entered the school armed with a kitchen knife and began stabbing numerous school children and teachers. He killed eight children, mostly between the ages of seven and eight, and seriously wounded thirteen other children and two teachers.[2]


  • Pro Libertate||

    Horrible. Helpless little kids are one thing, but you'd think it would be hard to do that with adults.

  • Paul.||

    Maybe, like Roger Rosenblatt, they "called a cop" and waited.

  • Paul.||

    Like Roger Rosenblatt suggested... that is.

  • dalewalt||

    Maybe they tried to throw up or piss on him?

  • Loki||

    For one thing, I'm going to go out on a limb* here and guess that the school in question has a strict zero-tolerance no guns allowed on campus policy.

    *not much of limb, I'm sure.

  • Gray Ghost||

    Lone Star College, just up the street in Cypress, Texas. All schools are gun-free zones for CHL holders in Texas, with a few exceptions.

    Ironically, this campus was the site of a shooting two months ago. The article doesn't say, but IIRC, one of the two who were charged had a CHL. Really surprising.

    Not sure if he stabbed all 15, but 2 are in critical condition, and at least 6 are going to be in the hospital for a while.

    He may not have done as well if he had a gun.

  • Rasilio||

    No one needs a knife with more than 7 CM in it's blade

  • Scarcity||

    And as those CMs get used up, they will no longer be available to criminals.

  • BuSab Agent||

    +1 monitor covered in coffee to you good sir, well done.

  • Paul.||

    expect indiscriminate phone tracking to become a common practice.

    Already expected.

  • ||

    Already assumed it was.

  • Paul.||

    You have to be right about everything, don't you?

  • ||

    But was he technically correct?

  • ||

    The short answer: yes. But the truth is much more complicated than that, Paul. For instance, I was wrong once. It was when I assumed ProL was human. Then I found out he was a lawyer.

  • Loki||

    Read this comment in a Yoda voice I did.

  • CE||

    So Verizon just believes the feds when they say someone is dodging taxes, and reprograms their phone as a courtesy to the government? How about a class action lawsuit? And it sounds like the snooping would make your phone drop calls, or show up as unavailable, if they reroute you to a fake cell tower.

  • WomSom||

    Thts some pretty scary stuff dude. I mean like seriously .Wow.



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