An Amber Alert goes out – Shirley Temple has been kidnapped on her way home from school, we need to find her-and fast before the deviant does harm to her. There is a bomb threat called in to Smalltown High School. Is it real or a hoax? Who made the threat? A bomb explodes at a public event, with threats of more such bombs in public places by radical terrorists. How do we stop this? How do we catch the pathological miscreants before they can do more harm to society? Security. All humans want to feel secure. Safe from someone harming our family or us. Safe from having our possessions stolen, or our homes destroyed.
That’s where the police, FBI, and other three letter government agencies come in to play. Our policing agencies need all the help we can provide them in order for them to do the best possible job, providing us with the security we demand. Enter the age of cell phones, especially the smart phones of today. Everyone has one and we never “leave home without it”. New technology invented by very clever people has discovered a way to take advantage of cell technology to track these phones. Using a technology commonly referred to as “Stingray” technology, or IMSI catchers, the user of this technology can determine where you are, who you call, how long you talked, and in some cases, listen in on the conversation.
Little “black boxes” purchased by many policing authorities, can be transported in any vehicle, and can simulate a cell tower to intercept your phone’s connection along with everyone else’s within a mile radius of that mobile StingRay box. It can interrogate your phone to determine the phone’s identity (International Subscriber Mobile Number –ISMN and Electronic Serial Number-ESN), and then find out from the service provider, your name and all of your mobile phone records. Once that is known, they can track you with this StingRay technology. Police agencies also can get a “data dump” from a cell tower near Shirley Temple’s route home, the cell tower near Smalltown HS, or near the location of the last explosion from the service provider to determine who was in a mile to maybe two mile radius during any specific time period.
Software is available to help sort through all the data and possibly come up with a workable list of suspects. Just the ability to track a potential criminal is huge when it comes to law enforcement. But wait a minute, data dumps and Stingray technology casts a very wide net! It collects every cell phone within proximity of that tower or StingRay box. Including yours, even if you didn’t make a call. While they are supposed to get a warrant, what does that warrant give them the right to do and what data to collect and how long to collect it? Our fourth amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure. How are we protected when this technology casts such a wide net? Of course these agencies assure us that it is only being used to catch the bad guys, and I’m sure for the most part they are right.
But what do we know about who is using this technology, what data is gathered, or for how long? These agencies do not share such information and do all they can to keep it hidden, citing their Non-Disclosure Agreement with the manufacturer! The public’s right to know is circumvented by a NDA between government agencies and a private corporation. As the technology becomes more widespread in its use and by more agencies and police organizations, how confident are you that misuse might not become rampant or at least more common than we would prefer? For example according to an extensive report by USA Today: In Minnesota: State auditors found that 88 police officers in departments across the state misused their access to personal data in the state driver’s license database to look up information on family, friends, girlfriends or others without proper authorization or relevance to any official investigation in 2012.
If someone in authority misused the StingRay technology for non-warranted reasons, how would anyone know? Technology has raced past our legal system. We do not currently have sufficient laws on the books to handle this new technology. While we don’t want to handcuff our law enforcement branches, neither do we want to give up our Fourth Amendment rights with at least some sense of privacy, or do we?