Surveillance

DOJ Accused of Illegally Witholding Info About Phone Surveillance Tool

Not responding to FOIA requests

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n the aftermath of recent revelations about secret NSA surveillance programs, the Justice Department is coming under renewed pressure to release information about a controversial cellphone tracking device.

In a new Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in California earlier this month, the DoJ is accused of illegally withholding a trove of records related to a clandestine tool known as the "Stingray." The Stingray is a portable transceiver that sends out a signal that tricks all cellphones within a targeted area into hopping onto a fake network. The spy device, sometimes also described as an "IMSI catcher" or a "digital analyzer," is used by law enforcement agencies to covertly track down suspects. The FBI claims that it uses the device only to monitor the location of individuals and not to eavesdrop on text messages and phone calls. However, every time Stingrays are used, they inadvertently collect identifying data from all phones within a targeted radius—including those belonging to innocent bystanders—which is why civil liberties groups allege that they disproportionally violate privacy.

Following the leak of NSA documents showing the extent of the agency's surveillance programs, the ACLU's Northern California branch filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get the DoJ to turn over information about the use of the "highly intrusive and indiscriminate" Stingray tool. In the complaint, the ACLU argues that concern prompted by the NSA stories illustrates that there is a "great urgency to inform the public about any and all forms of dragnet electronic surveillance by the government." The group says that it filed a FOIA request for the Stingray documents back in April, but has not yet received any documents in response. It further accuses the DoJ of the "illegal withholding of government documents" and is asking that the court order the "prompt" release the files and declare the non-disclosure unlawful.