FBI use of Stingrays is an open secret, but the agency's director has finally spoken about it on the record.
Any given time, on any given day, law enforcement could be scooping up your location data using a fake cell phone tower, and you would probably never know about it. In a just-surfaced video from October, however, the FBI has copped to using fake cell phone towers, known as "Stingrays."
It's no secret that the FBI uses Stingrays—"cell-site simulator" devices which force all nearby cell phones to connect to it before rerouting traffic through a real cell phone tower—in order to track callers and suspect movements. The American Civil Liberties Union has detailed law enforcement use of the devices, which have been ruled unconstitutional in two states, at length.
But the FBI very rarely talks about the devices, and has even directed local law enforcement departments to notify them whenever media members make Freedom of Information Act requests about the use of Stingrays, in an attempt to keep their use secret.
So it was surprising to see FBI Director James Comey talk openly about Stingrays, and about asking local law enforcement to keep their mouths shut when using them, in a recent media appearance in Charlotte. In fact, Comey said that the FBI is telling local law enforcement who use its equipment to stay mum about the whole thing.
"When we're talking about using a device to find the location of a particular individual and where they might be using their cell phone, it's not about intercepting their calls," Comey said.
"It may be about finding what cell tower someone's phone is pinging off of and with proper authority, we, the feds, and our local brothers and sisters have to be able to do that to investigate all kinds of things," he added. "It's how we find killers, it's how we find kidnappers, it's how we find drug dealers, it's how we find missing children, it's how we find pedophiles. It's work you want us to be able to do."
The press conference actually occurred back in October, but the video didn't surface until this weekend and hadn't been reported on until the Charlotte Observer's excellent investigation into the use of Stingrays by local police was published on Sunday.
Stingrays work by allowing police to track the movement of a suspect, and are often used without a warrant, which was recently declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court.
Comey's comments are about par for the course for the director—lots of talk about "bad guys" and semantic arguments: "'Bulk collection' means something very different to me, and also 'collection' to me means something very different," he said.
Comey also said that the agency has "nothing to hide" from "good people," but that secrecy is important if Stingrays are going to be effective. Comey doesn't note, however, that, in trying to track down any one "bad person," the agency law enforcement necessarily tracks the locations of everyone within a wide geographic radius, thanks to the way the technology works.
"To me, it's about we are using some equipment appropriately to find bad guys. I don't want to say too much about that, because I don't want the bad guys to know," he said. "One of the reasons we ask local authorities who are working with us and using our equipment not to talk about it. It's not because I have something to hide from good people—I have a lot to hide from bad people."
The ACLU, meanwhile, has said that every year, millions of good people are getting wrapped up in a surveillance dragnet they didn't ask to be involved in.
"The devices wrap up innocent people, which looks like a dragnet search that's not legal under the Fourth Amendment," Nate Wessler, a staff attorney for the ACLU, recently told me. "Even if they're tracking a specific suspect, they're getting info about every bystander. That's a concern."