Tagged animalPublic DomainThe feds have been using "stingray" technology for years to mimic cell phone towers and trick mobile devices into revealing their location. Often, they disguise the technology in court submissions as less-intrusive, older-tech pen registers and trap and trace devices — a legal scam that at least one court said is A-OK. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California wants to know a little bit more about the government's use of these devices that have have the potential to turn iPhones and tablet computers into so many tracking beacons. To get the information, the ACLU first filed a FOIA request, and has now turned to the courts.

Writes Linda Lye for the ACLU of Northern California:

It’s entirely unclear whether the government, when using Stingrays, seeks warrants based on probable cause, seeks statutory orders based on a lesser showing or doesn’t seek any court authorization at all. And in those instances where the government does seek some form of court authorization, it’s also unclear how forthcoming the government is with the courts about the technology it proposes to use. Court orders authorizing surveillance are typically issued under seal, so it is extremely difficult to gain a picture of the government’s surveillance practices until years later, when the issue eventually arises in criminal cases on motions to suppress. Obtaining the Department of Justice’s policies governing use of this device is therefore the best way to get a comprehensive picture of the government’s use of this invasive surveillance tool. We hope our lawsuit will provide some answers to the many questions involving stingrays.

The lawsuit against the Department of Justice comes only after an April FOIA request that the DOJ agreed to grant expedited processing, given growing concerns over government surveillance. Since then ... crickets. Says the ACLU complaint, "the agency has provided Plaintiff with no records or any information regarding the status of the search."

It's likely that all agencies of the federal government are feeling a bit besieged over matters of domestic snooping and privacy violations. They might feel less so if they refrained in indulging in such activities.

The full complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, ACLU of Northern California v. Department of Justice, is here (PDF).