Federal investigators in Arizona have been taken to court over the use of "stingrays," electronic devices that mimic a cellphone tower and collect location and other data from all mobile devices in the immediate area. Since they collect data indiscriminately, privacy advocates hate them -- and they're not beloved by magistrate judges, either, especially if they're used without a warrant.
And that's what new e-mails written by prosecutors working for United States Attorney Melinda Haag show, privacy advocates contend. "It's a smoking gun," Hanni Fakhoury of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told The Recorder.
Federal agents' use of the tracking devices -- a brand name is Stingray but they're also known as "WIT" devices and "triggerfish" -- was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in 2011. A Bay Area man nabbed in a fraud case was located by federal investigators only after they used a stingray to find his location.
At that time, a judge chastised a prosecutor, informing him that whether or not the warrants issued in the case allowed use of the devices "could be litigated," the WSJ reported.
The e-mails acquired by the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union in March -- following an April 2012 Freedom of Information Act request -- suggest that investigators' use of the devices was widespread. Agents apparently used the stingrays while only seeking permission from a judge to use a "pen register," which is a less-invasive way of tracking cellphone signals.
"As some of you may be aware, our office has been working closely with the magistrate judges in an effort to address their collective concerns regarding whether a pen register is sufficient to authorize the use of law enforcement's WIT technology," wrote Criminal Division chief Miranda Kane in May 2011. "It has recently come to my attention that many agents are still using WIT technology in the field although the pen register application does not make that explicit."
At the very least, the e-mails show that federal agents weren't being "forthright" with judges about their surveillance methods, The Recorder reported. At worst, the agents are breaking the law in order to track their targets -- and meanwhile, since the stingrays are collecting any and all signals in the area, they're tracking you, too.