In 2017, the issue of privacy is at its peak. From Erin Andrews’s peeping Tom drama, to Trump’s wiretapping accusations, it’s easy to be paranoid.
Today we have illegal videos, an expanding market for GPS tracking devices, hacking, and a bevy of other security risks. Keeping your private life private is getting harder by the day.
But what about law enforcement? You may think there’s no way your local police are using government-grade surveillance gear to track your cell phone use. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
A recent report from the Anaheim Police Department revealed their use of cell phone surveillance gear. This technology, known as a Dirtbox, has tracked cellphones in Anaheim since 2009.
The report also showed that the department also has owned a Stringray since 2011. While it didn’t clarify how exactly the devices are being used, other sources have weighed in. Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties policy attorney with the ACLU, said: “This cell phone spying program—which potentially affects the privacy of everyone from Orange County’s 3 million residents to the 16 million people who visit Disneyland every year—shows the dangers of allowing law enforcement to secretly acquire surveillance technology.”
But how prevalent is this type of monitoring?
Surveillance Gear Used by State Law Enforcement
Stingrays are the most common cellphone surveillance gear used in the United States. That being said, Boeing’s “Dirtboxes” are more powerful cell-site simulators available. They’re used by the NSA, CIA and U.S. military to track down suspected terrorists.
Today, nearly 60 law enforcement agencies in 23 states are known to have Stingrays. Some Departments even use the devices fairly often. For example, the Baltimore PD has used theirs more than four thousand times. They began using surveillance gear in 2007.
The technology impersonates a cell phone tower to connect to mobile devices in the area. This reveals their location and unique ID. Stringrays and Dirtboxes don’t just pick up IDs of targeted devices, though. They also pick up information from every phone within range.
The Privacy Debate
The military has used cell-site simulators for almost two decades. It’s the adoption of the same surveillance tools by local police that has many people on high alert. Private citizens can’t understand why their local PDs need to be using Dirtboxes.
“Every time police drive the streets with a Stingray, these dragnet devices can identify and locate dozens or hundreds of innocent bystanders’ phones,” said Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
In fact, the report showed that the Anaheim police department uses Dirtboxes often. The plane-mounted devices fly over Southern California and Disneyland. This type of activity may compromise the privacy of millions of tourists.
In 2013 the Anaheim police upgraded their surveillance gear. That update included a new type of Stingray. The ACLU believes this gave them the ability to monitor LTE cellular networks. Millions of smartphones operate on those networks.
“In other words, as cell carriers upgraded their networks to LTE, Anaheim police took steps to exploit that very network which millions of customers would entrust with their private communications,” wrote Cagle.
“Without more transparency and an enforceable set of rules, we really don’t know whether these devices are used from the sky to investigate routine crimes or pursuant to a warrant as CalECPA now requires,” says Cagle. “We look forward to seeing jurisdictions releasing publicly available use policies with a warrant requirement.”
Where do you stand?
This type of information can be unsettling, but it’s important to look at both sides of the case.
Being monitored without your consent is a clear invasion of privacy. However, this type of surveillance can also go a long way towards preventing crime. And as far as personal spy gear is concerned, concealed devices can be key in keeping your home and family safe. But where do we draw the line? And who should have access to surveillance gear?
What do you think about police departments using cellphone surveillance gear? Let us know in the comments!