StingRay (IMSI Catcher) Devices Used by Police to Intercept Calls –No Warrants

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[Excerpts] LA Weekly

by Jon Campbell

Suitcase-sized and portable, StingRays are used by law enforcement to track mobile phones in real time. The device electronically impersonates a cellphone tower and dupes the mobile phone into connecting through its own antennae.

Documents obtained by L.A. Weekly through the Freedom of Information Act show that the Los Angeles Police Department is quietly using the StingRay. (Police in Miami, Fort Worth and Gilbert, Ariz., also are known to have the devices.)

LAPD refuses to discuss how it uses the powerful tool, perhaps copying the FBI’s playbook, which argued in the Rigmaiden case that revealing too many details would cause serious harm to future investigations.

The department, through a spokesperson, refused to comment on the device, despite repeated requests from the Weekly. Through the department’s Discovery Unit, which handles requests from the public and media under the California Public Records Act, LAPD also declined to reveal any information on how the devices are used.

LAPD even refuses to say whether its detectives are required by police chief Charlie Beckand the Los Angeles Police Commission — all of whom are appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — to obtain a search warrant before the StingRay is deployed against unsuspecting L.A. residents’ cellphones.

The FBI has argued that a search warrant is not required, a question at issue in the Rigmaiden case, and one that Beck’s people refused to address.

But LAPD is using the devices.

Documents obtained from the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Homeland Security reveal that LAPD bought two so-called “IMSI catchers” around 2006. At the time, LAPD had “recently purchased a cellphone tracking system (CPTS) for regional, terrorist-related investigations.” The records mention StingRay and KingFish, brand names for IMSI devices made by Florida’s Harris Corp.

Separate documents show that, in April 2010, the Los Angeles City Council approved the purchase of $347,050 in additional “StingRay II” equipment — and paid for it with outside funds from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports police functions, over which the city has no control.

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IMSI Catchers and Mobile Phones

Police might not be the only ones in the Czech Republic who are using IMSI catchers

Photo by JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

They can be slipped into a suitcase and used almost anywhere to spy on mobile phone communications. IMSI catchers are high-tech portable devices used by law enforcement agencies across the world to secretly intercept conversations and text messages. But could they be abused for criminal purposes? The answer is yes, according to an alarming report from Europe last week.

Czech broadcaster Radio Prague revealed that the use of IMSI catchers is on the rise in the country—but not by the authorities. A senior police chief, Tomas Almer, told the station that police had been detecting unauthorized IMSI catchers (called agátas in Czech) being used across the country, though had not been able to catch any of the perpetrators. Why use an IMSI catcher if you aren’t hunting for bad guys? Former Czech intelligence agency chief Andor Sandor said that businesses could be using them to spy on one another. And, as Radio Prague suggested, it’s possible that criminal gangs could be using them for extortion.

IMSI catchers are advanced pieces of hardware that can be used to send out a signal, tricking mobile phones into thinking they are part of a legitimate mobile phone network. The most sophisticated IMSI catchers, such as the one known to have been purchased by London’s Metropolitan Police, allow authorities to shut off targeted phones remotely and gather data about thousands of users in a specific area. They can force phones to release their unique IMSI and IMEI identity codes, which can then be used to track a person’s movements in real time.

The use of the technology by police—let alone criminals—is controversial. Recently, some argued that the FBI’s use of an IMSI catcher known as a “Stingray” was unconstitutionalunder the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Until November last year, the Department of Justice had claimed the use of a Stingray did not constitute a search. However, the DoJ suddenly changed tack during an Arizona court case, a move the Wall Street Journal reported was “designed to protect the secrecy of the gadgets.”

Largely due to the endemic scale of that secrecy, little is known about how widely IMSI catchers are being used. It is highly likely that most modern police forces, especially those in densely populated cities where there are fears about terrorism and other serious crime, will have one or two in their possession. Perhaps of greater concern, though, in some places, tech-savvy criminals could be deploying their own cut-price IMSI catchers. As hacker Chris Paget illustrated in 2010, while police-grade versions of the technology can cost hundreds of thousands, for about $1,500 it’s possible to design a DIY IMSI catcher, which could be used for all sorts of nefarious purposes.

More details about the use of the spy tools may soon emerge, as civil liberties groups like the ACLU continue to demand transparency from U.S. authorities on issues related to phone tracking and surveillance. In London, the group Privacy International has gone one step further, taking action into its own hands in a quest to track down users of the technology. PI has hatched a rather ingenious plan, investing earlier this year in what it calls an “IMSI catcher catcher”—a device designed to snoop on the snoopers, sniffing out anyone operating an IMSI catcher in a given location.

In the meantime, if you’re concerned about an IMSI catcher eavesdropping on you—whether it’s being wielded by law enforcement or by criminals—there is, unfortunately, no simple solution. You could invest in encryption software for yourself and your friends. Failing that, well, you could always just stop using your phone.