FBI Improperly Hid Info on Cellphone Surveillance Devices, Judge Rules

A federal judge has ordered the FBI to release 8 additional StingRay documents

A federal judge has ruled that the FBI must release documents it improperly withheld about StingRays, the now-infamous cellphone mass-surveillance devices that police and federal agencies have deployed in secret for decades.

The judgment comes courtesy of Daniel Rigmaiden, a reclusive former tax fraudster-turned-government transparency advocate who first exposed the StingRay's existence after being busted by one in 2008. Initially writing appeals while imprisoned on fraud charges, Rigmaiden has worked for years sleuthing out the secretive devices, resulting in revelations of their use by dozens of agencies and police departments across the country. Rigmaiden was released on probation in 2014 after taking a plea deal.

Now the federal judge working Rigmaiden's FOIA lawsuit has ordered the FBI to release 8 additional StingRay documents, saying the information was "not properly withheld." The agency had tried to hide the documents, invoking the broadly-written Exemption 7(E), which can exclude records that might reveal "techniques and procedures" used in law enforcement investigations. The court rejected that justification, and the agency will now need to hand over the documents to Rigmaiden within 90 days.

Originally developed for the US Navy, Stingrays (the trade name for a class of device known as "IMSI catchers" or "cell-site simulators") allow cops to track and intercept thousands of devices at once by impersonating a cellphone tower—without revealing their use to courts and often without a warrant. The FBI has gone to insane lengths to keep Stingrays secret, forcing police departments to sign nondisclosure agreements and even having prosecutors drop criminal cases to avoid revealing that the devices were used.

More recently though, it's been pretty clear the cat is out of the bag.

Several security researchers have developed apps that can detect the presence of cell-site simulators. A court in New York also ruled last year that cops can't hide information about StingRays. And last September, the Department of Justice announced an "enhanced policy" requiring probable cause warrants whenever the devices are deployed by federal investigators.

That new policy notably doesn't apply to state and local police, many of which still contend that warrants aren't needed to use Stingrays. And even with a warrant, the devices still identify and track potentially thousands of innocent cellphone users who happen to be in range. "A lot of it is just putting a new face on what they've been doing all along," Rigmaiden told The Verge in a recent profile. "In my case, they had a warrant. The problem was the information on the warrant."

In that sense, it's likely that any new information about Stingrays released at this point will simply confirm what we already know. But if there's any hope of putting constraints on these once-secret surveillance devices, privacy advocates and civil liberties lawyers are going to need all the legal ammunition they can get.