08:42 GMT26 May 2020
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    A recent court filing appears to confirm what civil liberties groups have long feared: that a powerful telephone surveillance device used by federal and local law enforcement to target a particular phone affects others too.

    The technology is known as Stingray, and it’s used to gather data on a specific mobile device. The feds haven’t said much about, arguing that they don’t want suspects to know how the system works, but groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have said it’s too invasive because “innocent” phones get swept up in the operation.

    Stingray, the ACLU and others argue, disrupts cell service for any phone in the vicinity and for devices that use the same cell network. And not only has the Justice Department not said much about it, they have so far refused to answer any questions or even confirm what the ACLU asserts.

    But the ACLU found a warrant application by the FBI asking for authority to use the stingray, and it mentions the disruptions, so reports the technology website WIRED. “Because of the way the mobile equipment sometimes operates, its use has the potential to intermittently disrupt cellular service…any potential service disruption will be brief and minimized by reasonably limiting the scope and duration of the use of the mobile device,” writes FBI Special Agent Michael Scimeca in the warrant request.

    The warrant request only became known after an attorney for a defendant in the case filed a motion to dismiss all evidence gathered by the stingray, and the ACLU says it’s the first time they’ve seen the FBI acknowledge the device’s disruptions.

    “We think the fact that stingrays block or drop calls of cell phone users in the vicinity should be of concern to cell service providers, the FCC, and ordinary people,” said Nate Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “If an emergency or important/urgent call (to a doctor, a loved one, etc.) is blocked or dropped by this technology, that’s a serious problem,” he told WIRED.

    The stingray is about the size of a briefcase and work like a real cell phone tower, only the signal is stronger and that forces cell phones to connect to them and can then be tracked. The system is not only used by federal and local law enforcement, but also by several states, and has some legislators looking into the issue. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) recently sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking about the how the FCC went about certifying the device. Nelson also went on the Senate floor to assail its use, saying it poses “a grave threat” to cell phone and Internet privacy.

    Interestingly, one of the Nelson’s major campaign contributors is the Harris Corporation, maker of the stingray.

    Tags:
    cellphones, FBI, stingray, ACLU, surveillance
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