Cutting corners: Stingrays are nothing new, but their use by law enforcement is still shrouded in secrecy, even after numerous attempts to regulate them. Civil right advocates have long called for more transparency on the matter, but after seeing how difficult it is to get access to public records pertaining to the use of cell site simulators by CBP and ICE, the American Civil Liberties Union are suing the two government agencies in an effort to bring that information to light.
Privacy seems to be at a premium these days, and even big tech companies that are the biggest proponents of more stringent rules don't always practice what they preach. Just this past week Apple inadvertently revealed through a lawsuit that it is routinely collecting phone calls and messages of its employees.
The Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have been involved in numerous privacy debacles over the last few years, but now the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing them for failing to produce public materials that disclose how they use "stingrays."
Stingrays are essentially cell sites that act like the real ones used by wireless carriers, so they can be used to trick phones into connecting to them. Law enforcement agencies can then identify, locate, and track those phones, but in the process they also get information about phones of innocent people, which introduces the potential for abuse and mishandling of the collected data.
According to a 2016 report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, ICE and CBP had already spent $13 billion on 92 stingrays. Keep in mind that these are also able to observe call records and text messages, and history shows the two agencies aren't doing their best job to protect the data they collect.
An ACLU spokesperson notes "the public has a right to know if and how often ICE and CBP are using Stingrays, which were originally intended for use by the military and intelligence agencies, for civil immigration enforcement operations." The civil liberties group is asking the two agencies to sound off on what steps they have taken to ensure stingrays aren't used against innocent bystanders, and whether they disclose their use in immigration court proceedings.
We know Stingrays have been in use by law enforcement around the country to conduct surveillance operations, but this could quickly turn into a national security issue. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security said it had knowledge of several unauthorized stingrays operating in Washington, DC, leading to speculation that they may have been used by foreign spies.