Civil Liberties

Court Grants FBI Leeway With Ruling on Tracking Mobile Devices

Just trust 'em


Today, a federal district judge in Arizona issued a very disappointing decision concerning the government's obligations to be candid with courts about new technologies they are seeking a warrant to use.

The case involves Daniel Rigmaiden, who is being criminally prosecuted for an alleged electronic tax fraud scheme. The government used a surveillance device known as a stingray to locate Mr. Rigmaiden. A stingray operates by simulating a cell tower and tricking all wireless devices on the same network in the immediate vicinity to communicate with it, as though it were the carrier's cell tower. In order to locate a suspect, a stingray scoops up information not only of the suspect, but all third parties on the same network in the area. This means that when the government uses a stingray to conduct a search, it is searching not only the suspect, but also tens or hundreds of third parties who have nothing to do with the matter. When the FBI sought court permission to use the device to locate Mr. Rigmaiden, it didn't explain the full reach of stingrays to the court.

The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief arguing that when the government wants to use invasive surveillance technology, it has an obligation to explain to the court basic information about the technology, such as its impact on innocent third parties. This is necessary to ensure that courts can perform their constitutional function of ensuring that the search does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately, today's decision trivializes the intrusive nature of electronic searches and potentially opens the door to troubling government misuse of new technology.

In today's decision denying the motion to suppress, the judge held that information about how the stingray operates – such as the fact that it scoops up third party data – was merely a "detail of execution which need not be specified." We respectfully but strongly disagree.