The Trump administration has turned to one of law enforcement’s most controversial surveillance tools to implement its crackdown not on violent criminals, but on undocumented immigrants.
The device, known as a Stingray, is about the size of a suitcase, often installed in roaming vehicles — even planes — to help locate cell phones in the area. Stingrays are controversial because they mimic cell towers, so any and all nearby phones searching for a signal indiscriminately ping off the device rather than a tower.
The Detroit News obtained federal records showing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents use cell-site simulating devices, known as Stingrays or Hailstorms, which are typically reserved for counterterrorism efforts.
A federal warrant granted ICE and the FBI the authority to use a Stingray device to find 23-year-old Detroit resident Rudy Carcamo-Carranza, who had twice been deported to his native El Salvador. He had previous run-ins with the law, including DUI allegations and a hit-and-run collision, according to the Detroit News. Carcamo-Carranza is set to stand trial in federal court July 11, and is facing up to 10 years in prison for outstanding warrants on those charges.
Law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant before using Stingray technology. A federal judge tossed out evidence gathered using a Stingray in 2015 because the authorities failed to receive a warrant and were therefore found to have violated privacy rights.
In his decision, Manhattan U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley wrote, “Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device.”
Use of Stingray devices in deportation and immigration cases demonstrates the threat posed by the proliferation of location-tracking technology throughout law enforcement agencies.
For instance, police in Charlotte, North Carolina used Stingray devices every week for eight years to help locate violent criminals, inadvertently capturing the data of the nearly 1 million residents.
Stingrays aren’t the only cellphone-sniffing tools. Law enforcement agencies also use Wolfhounds or Jugular devices, which passively collect data through signals emitted by mobile phones. The devices are small enough to clip on clothing, and unlike Stingrays, police don’t have to obtain a warrant to use them. Their legality, particularly use without a warrant, is unclear because they’re not as invasive as Stingrays and law enforcement agencies aren’t required to get court orders to use them. But many law enforcement agencies are cautious in using them to avoid legal entanglement.
For Stingrays, Justice Department policy adopted in 2015 bars federal agencies from using Stingrays to collect emails, texts, or phone contacts. But those policies don’t extend to local police departments.
The use of the technology raises a host of privacy concerns because the devices could catch location data for immigrants who live in the U.S. legally as well as bystanders who are not the target of a federal warrant. Use of Stingrays in immigration cases specifically also means increasing surveillance and tracking and deporting individuals who have no violent or felony offenses.
And the problem is only worsening. The American Civil Liberties Union found that state or local police departments in at least 24 states already have access to the devices.