When talking of freewheeling domestic spying, it would behoove us to remember that it’s not just the National Security Agency (NSA) that needs reform and a tight leash. Hell, it’s not even just federal agencies who are disinterested in your Fourth Amendment rights. Like the war toys that move from the Pentagon down to myriad local law enforcement agencies, dragnet spying is happening at the state and city level, too.
Last Friday, VICE Motherboard’s Max Cherney reported on the continued, disturbing trend of local police departments acquiring International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, more commonly referred to by brand names such as Trigger Fish and Stingray. These suitcase-sized devices act as fake cell phone towers — phones in offices, homes, or pockets connect to them, and then cops can read identifying information, and access metadata such as call length, stored numbers, who you’ve called (even if you’re not calling anyone at the moment), and location data. Cherney notes that the capability for the devices to monitor voice content is (supposedly) disabled domestically, but it can read SMS text messages.
The creepier thing about cops owning these devices is that the fact that they do so at all is often protected with the utmost secrecy — kinda like your own corner NSA! — under federal law and under nondisclosure agreements that the device manufacturers themselves mandate. One manufacturer, Harris Corp., has an agreement which states local police must “coordinate with the FBI the acquisition and use of the equipment.”