Thought the NSA was bad? Local police and the Obama administration are hoovering cellphone location data from inside your house, and a crackdown could lead to surveillance reform
All across America, from Florida to Colorado and back again, the country’s increasingly militarized local police forces are using a secretive technology to vacuum up cellphone data from entire neighborhoods — including from people inside their own homes — almost always without a warrant. This week, numerous investigations by major news agencies revealed the US government is now taking unbelievable measures to make sure you never find out about it. But a landmark court ruling for privacy could soon force the cops to stop, even as the Obama administration fights to keep its latest tool for mass surveillance a secret.
So-called International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers — more often called their popular brand name, “Stringray” — have long been the talk of the civil liberties crowd, for the indiscriminate and invasive way these roving devices conduct surveillance. Essentially, Stingrays act as fake cellphone towers (usually mounted in a mobile police truck) that police can point toward any given area and force every phone in the area to connect to it. So even if you’re not making a call, police can find out who you’ve been calling, and for how long, as well as your precise location. As Nathan Freed Wessler of the ACLU explained on Thursday, “In one Florida case, a police officer explained in court that he ‘quite literally stood in front of every door and window’ with his stingray to track the phones inside a large apartment complex.”
Yet these mass surveillance devices have largely stayed out of the public eye, thanks to the federal government and local police refusing to disclose they’re using them in the first place — sometimes, shockingly,even to judges. As the Associated Press reported this week, the Obama administration has been telling local cops to keep information on Stingrays secret from members of the news media, even when it seems like local public records laws would mandate their disclosure. The AP noted:
Federal involvement in local open records proceedings is unusual. It comes at a time when President Barack Obama has said he welcomes a debate on government surveillance and called for more transparency about spying in the wake of disclosures about classified federal surveillance programs.