Tap and Track: Not Just for the NSA

The National Security Agency has come under intense scrutiny over the past several years for its warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance tactics. Members of the public have been the subjects of surveillance, as well as a over 120 world leaders, including close U.S. allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Knowing this, the backlash against the NSA may not seem so shocking.

It may be a surprise, however, to learn that the tools and techniques used by the NSA are also being used by state and local law enforcement. In the most recent issue of The Independent Review, my coauthor Chris Coyne and I discussed the origins of domestic surveillance in the United States in “Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control.” In particular, we discuss how one can tie the early incarnations of the NSA to U.S. interventions abroad. We argue that once new social control techniques are developed, they permeate throughout the larger system through changes in technology, the skills of workers, and alterations in the broader structure of private and public industry.

One example of how new social control techniques spread domestically is illustrated by the development and use of a device called a “Stingray” or a “cell site simulator.” The Stingray, about the size of a large toaster oven, simulates a cell phone tower, tricking the software in cell phones into transmitting information like the phone’s location and other identifying information. A cadre of federal agencies use these devices in the name of combatting terrorism. In addition to the NSA, the FBI, Secret Service, ICE, ATF, branches of the military, and U.S. Special Operations Command are all known to use Stingrays.  The devices allow users to track the movements of a suspect, learn who an individual is contacting, and where they are going.

But the Stingrays have not just been used by federal authorities to “track terrorists” as originally intended. Instead, these devices have seen extended use by state and local law enforcement to track common criminals.

We can debate the merits of tracking everyday criminal suspects with this technology. But consider that these devices don’t impact only the intended target. They also obtain information from other phones in the surrounding area. According to one report by the ACLU,

 “Even when police are tracking a specific suspect, stingrays sweep up information about large numbers of bystanders who happen to be nearby; if stingrays yell out “Marco,” the mobile phones in the area reply, “Polo.” The result is that police gather the electronic serial numbers and other information about phones, as well as the direction and strength of each phone’s signal, allowing precise location tracking. Stingrays can also gather information about people’s communications, such as which phone numbers they call. Because we carry our cellphones with us virtually everywhere we go, stingrays can paint a precise picture of where we are and who we spend time with, including our location in a lover’s house, in a psychologist’s office or at a political protest.”

The most recent reports discuss the use of Stingray technology in Washington, D.C., but it is clear the devices are used throughout the country (you can click the map below for the interactive version).

What’s more disturbing is that the use of the Stingrays is shrouded in mystery.  Local agencies are required to sign non-disclosure agreements with federal authorities before buying a Stingray. As a result, very little information is known about how local police actually use this powerful tracking equipment. Attempts to compel the release of said information have been subverted by the aforementioned non-disclosure agreement.

State and local authorities often cite “combatting terrorism” in the homeland as justification for obtaining more powerful equipment and increasing their stock of materials. This idea of combatting terrorism is often accepted by the general public. It’s important for us, then, to examine whether or not these methods are actually effective. In most cases, they are “effective” only in that they grossly erode personal privacy.

In response to this, people often say, “I don’t care if they track me. I’ve got nothing to hide. If they catch one bad guy it’s worth it.” But what they fail to realize is that, as these types of activities spread, the “bad guys” become the general public. This attitude erodes the critical checks and balances placed on all levels of the government. As the case of the Stingray illustrates, we may be giving up our right to privacy, without the ability to know who, when, and how our rights are being violated.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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