Jacob Silverman,  March 18, 2015

Stingrays, ShotSpotters, and Our New Relentless Surveillance

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It’s time to add a new name to your post-9/11 bestiary of technologies of control. Meet the Stingray, a device whose name sounds like it was ripped from a minor league baseball team in a pathetic attempt to seem fierce. A Stingray is a boxy collection of electronics that, by simulating a cell tower and intercepting cell phone signals, allows law enforcement to track down phones, scoop up their metadata and, sometimes, the very contents of their communications.

Stingrays have been known to the public for a few years, but the federal government would prefer it otherwise. So, too, would Stingray’s manufacturer, the Harris Corporation, a Melbourne, Florida-based defense contractor that pumps out enough communications, surveillance, and IT products to bring in about $5 billion in revenue per annum. That’s a lot of business to keep secret. Fortunately, Harris has found a good partner in the FBI, which has distributed Stingray and other cell site simulators to intelligence agencies as well as municipal police forces all over the country.

Any law enforcement agencies who purchase the Stingray are required to sign non-disclosure agreements, meaning that they can’t discuss the technology—like what it does, or when it’s used—with anyone, be it a judge or a defendant. That’s led to some cases falling apart or defendants being allowed to plead down, when a local cop can’t explain how he found that alleged drug dealer’s phone. In other instances, Florida police officers, prompted by the Marshals Service, have simply lied to judges about their use of Stingrays.

Essentially, then, the FBI—along with the Department of Homeland Security, which provides grants to many local forces to buy these and other militarized policing products—acts as Harris Corporation’s sales agent. By forcing NDAs upon Stingray purchasers, the FBI is helping to corner the market for Harris, whose intellectual property is now treated as a veritable state secret. It is also helping to encourage local police forces to become like intelligence agencies, down to their dissembling about their tactics.

Stingrays (and I’m just using this brand name to stand in for a range of similar products) aren’t benign instruments that can be programmed to track down a single phone and disregard all others. They are capable of sucking up large amounts of data from many phones in an area. These monitoring technologies have spread widely, from Milwaukee to Florida, California to New York. It’s all part of a vast, unaccountable domestic surveillance apparatus, one that, having captured our nation’s seventeen intelligence agencies, is now becoming firmly embedded in local police forces and in everyday police work. Whether it’s U.S. Marshals attaching CIA-supplied Stingrays to planes to track phones over wide areas, or DHS drones operating similar technologies near our borders (and often transferring control of the UAVs to local agencies), these devices are now permanent features of our nation’s dragnet.

Stingray is the boogeyman of the moment, but there’s another one waiting around the corner. The NYPD is currently expanding the use of ShotSpotter, a system of sensors designed to detect and quickly report the location of gunfire, potentially saving police officers precious time. There are problems with ShotSpotter, though. One study in Suffolk County, Long Island, found that only 7 percent of the system’s alarms were verified shootings. (In another study at the Charleston Navy Yard in South Carolina, the detection rate was far higher.)

But beyond its disputed reliability, ShotSpotter is problematic because it embeds urban environments with sensors that, like Stingrays, might pick up far more than they were designed to. That has already happened, with arguments recorded by ShotSpotter before a shooting broke out being used as evidence in court. Once these types of recordings start being used in court, the potential use cases will expand dramatically. That must please current NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, a pusher of the technology, who until assuming his current position sat on the board of SST Inc.—the manufacturer of ShotSpotter.

The lack of open discussion and policy deliberation surrounding these technologies should concern everyone. There has long been speculation about whether foreign elements—whether governments, narco gangs, or simply some rogue hackers—have ever operated Stingrays on U.S. soil. Imagine a few of these scattered around Washington, D.C., mostly undetectable and operated by the Chinese or the Russians, and you can understand why security wonks were shocked that Hillary Clinton was using a private email account as Secretary of State. One ride down the wrong street, and her phone could have been compromised, and no one would have known.

There are glimmers of change, but they may just be mirages in the desert of progress. Virginia recently passed a law that requires law enforcement to get a warrant to get telecom records, a provision that covers the use of Stingrays. Just this week, a Supreme Court judge in Buffalo, New York ruled that the local sheriff’s office must disclose how it uses Stingrays. Expanding on these measures might not curb Stingrays’ use, but adding a warrant requirement is a good step toward accountability.

Yet as long as the federal government and a defense contractor can collude to keep these technologies secret, we can only wonder at their use, and at the scale of their violations.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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