San Diego Police Used Stingray to Solve Common Crimes, Failed to Mention Use to Judges

The cellphone tracking instrument has had questionable success.


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An investigation by The San Diego Union-Tribune reveals that the city's police department used a StingRay device on at least 30 occasions since 2011 to collect suspects' cellphone information. Often, it was used to investigate common crimes without a warrant specifically pointing out its use.

StingRays—a brand of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers—are devices that trick cellphones into connecting to them by simulating a cellphone tower. After connecting, a cellphone will transmit data to the StingRay, including information regarding calls, text messages, and the phone's location. San Diego police have said they only use the instrument to collect intelligence regarding location.

These devices were marketed by the federal government as tools needed to track terrorism suspects. But privacy advocates have criticized their use, as they gather data not only from suspects but also from anyone else who happens to be nearby. In addition, police have often used them without a warrant and to deal with street crimes such as burglaries and assaults that have nothing to do with terrorism.

It's difficult to know exactly how the device in San Diego was used thanks to a non-disclosure agreement between the police department, the FBI, and StingRay manufacturer the Harris Corporation. Documents collected by the Union-Tribune include pages that are "a solid block of black from the top of the page to the bottom."

We do know, however, that police used the equipment in their everyday work—and that it met with mixed success. As the newspaper's Greg Moran wrote:

In January San Diego police used it to try to locate a man who was a suspect in a series of vehicle burglaries. He was also wanted for robbery, burglary and making a criminal threat.

Police had been able to get a rough location of the phone using GPS data [from] a different and less powerful surveillance method, but said the Stingray was needed to "narrow the search in order to locate the suspect." They found the phone at the home of a girlfriend of the suspect, then used the Stingray to follow the woman to see if she would lead them to the suspect, but he was not found, the records say.

It's unclear if an arrest was ever made. Search warrants for the case remain sealed.

Lawsuits brought by civil liberties groups reveal that when San Diego police sought warrants in many of these cases, they failed to mention the StingRay would be used to collect data, Moran reported. Court documents instead show they asked to use different devices that are not as powerful. The Los Angeles Police Department was caught doing something similar in 2013.

There has been some progress toward controlling the use of IMSI catchers across the country. California now has laws requiring law enforcement to get a court order before using the gadgets. In March, Maryland's Court of Special Appeals ruled that police units could not track someone's phone without a warrant. Additionally, a federal judge in July withheld evidence in a case because federal agents failed to get a warrant prior to tracking a suspect's location, which led them to discover said evidence. And Kelly Aviles of the First Amendment Coalition told the Union-Tribune that since judges have become more aware of how the StingRay is used, they can start asking tougher questions.

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  1. Alex Thomas, you are simply too cute for reason. Good solid writing for a fourteen-year-old though.

    1. Don’t pick on the interns, they are he only ones who work over there. And DON’T TALK ABOUT LUCY!

      1. Did you know that Lucy was also a Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern?

        This is what she looked like back then.

    2. It was a pretty good article…well-reasoned and cited, no histrionics or wild-eyed emotionalism. We need more like this one although I’ll bet the hit count will be pretty well south of the hit count for articles about you know who.

      1. Tom Riddle?

      2. Bitcoin?

      3. Millennials?

        1. “…Hit Count…” uh, your Mom?

          1. Oops, meant The Grinches mom

      4. Deep Dish?

    3. OMG, is Robby reproducing through binary fission?

  2. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

  3. If you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

    Now, let’s discuss your share of the $100,000,000,000,000 accrual basis national debt. You DO want to be a Patriot, don’t you?

    DON’T YOU?!?!?!?

  4. The NDAs are blatantly unconstitutional. How long before they get challenged in court?

    1. If the police learn that a prosecutor or judge plans to use information about the device, beyond what is described as the “evidentiary results” from deploying the Stingray, they must tell the FBI and allow the agency to intervene in the case.

      Another provision says that if the FBI requests, the police will “seek dismissal of the case” instead of being required to provide information about the device and how it operates, the agreement reads.

      The FBI, living up to it’s reputation as a defender of liberties once again.

      1. Wow, the Feds are openly admitting to undermining the sovereignty of the states. Kinda refreshing, but also kinda scary.

    1. Obligatory old dudes in a ‘vette.

  5. I read the headline and at first I thought of real stingrays, like the animal. If police were using aquatic stingrays to solve crimes, I think a lot of us would have a more favorable opinion of the police.

    1. Or they could wear them mounted on their chests.

      1. -1 Steve Irwin

  6. StingRays … are devices that trick cellphones into connecting to them by simulating a cellphone tower.

    A device that prevents cellphones from being so tricked sounds like an opportunity for some enterprising technogeek.

    1. Causing the phone to give some kind of erroneous location seems like it would be fairly simple.

      1. You could spoof the GPS, but not the tower and direction.

  7. Come on, I know I’m not the only person who imagined something like this.

    1. “Pull, um, *down*!”

  8. Yawn!

    Our asshole sheriff not only has used a Stingray and tried to keep it secret, he also has been secretly using facial recognition.

    Sheriff Stanek also fought valiantly in both cases to hide the programs from the public.

    1. Damn, it looks like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men finally managed to put Humpty together again.

    2. It’s a shame that the constitutional definition of treason is so narrow.

  9. I suppose anyone who attempted to blow up a stingray device would be a “terrorist” and then the right wing could clamor about the “war on cops”.

    The right wing supporters deserve to be oppressed by those they support. Stupid hurts.

    1. If you think only the right wing supports measures like this and cops too you’re living in fantasyland. It’s unfortunate but there’s plenty of support on both sides of the aisle.

      1. Well, to be fair, I usually complain about the “left” wingers. I thought I’d balance it out today.

  10. Dear San Diego Police,
    Be careful with using stingrays in your day to day work. Didn’t work out for me.

    Steve Irwin

  11. So basically the FBI and FedGov are allowing local precincts to use these ‘terrorist tracking devices’ on regular citizens provided that they lie about using it and, if they’re ever caught lying about using it, they must throw out the entire case rather than risk exposing any potential operational paramaters of the illegal device used in the first place.

    The most concerning part of this whole debacle is that it’s basically right out in the open how they’re not only violating our rights and lying about violating said rights, but that they’re more concerned with their ability to violate out rights without our knowing than they are about the violation.

    That really says everything right there.

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