Recently there have been increased concerns on the methods used by law enforcement officials to gather evidence. These concerns come amid allegations by a whistleblower last year that the National Security Agency secretly compiles phone and other data on US citizens. The latest development concerning citizen data compilation involves a technology known by its brand name the “Stingray.” The stingray is just one name for an IMSI catcher. IMSI stands for international mobile subscriber identity and this technology does exactly what is in its name; catches and then records these mobile identities.
How do they work?
These devices are small in stature—about the size of a briefcase—and can be attached to planes, cars and even drones. The IMSI catcher, also known as a cell-site simulator, tricks cell phones within a several mile radius to connect to it. It does this by sending a signal to a cell phone, pretending to be a wireless carrier network or a cell phone tower, and tricks all cell phones within the allotted radius to connect to it. Although cell phones have evolved and most 3G or 4G networks can decipher between real and fake cell towers, the IMSI catcher has also evolved, sending out signals to block cell phones in the radius from connecting to these newer networks and forcing them to connect to the easily monitored 2G network.
What can they do?
Once a cell phone is connected to the IMSI catcher, whoever is monitoring the device can compile a host of information about the cell phone owner. This information includes the cell users number, and location, along with the numbers of every outgoing phone call and text message sent. In some cases, the more sophisticated and expensive versions of the IMSI catcher can even record the content of our calls and text messages. The devices, however, are not sophisticated enough to target one user. The device will collect the information of every cell phone in the radius that connects.
Implications of the IMSI technology
This technology has been used by law enforcement for years. Their use of the IMSI catcher has been shrouded in secrecy due to the legal implications of use. To obtain a device, law enforcement departments must contact the FBI and sign a non disclosure agreement. They must sign the agreement before the FBI agrees to release the device to the department. The reason for all this secrecy is because civil rights agencies have repeatedly objected to the use of the technology after law enforcement uses the non disclosure agreements to withhold records on the data obtained. Civil rights agencies cite two major problems with the use of this technology.
Issues of the IMSI technology
The first problem is that the devices are not reliable. If law enforcement tracks a stolen cell phone to your apartment building, it is extremely difficult for them to discern exactly which apartment is housing the stolen property. The device is not strong enough to decipher whether there might be a wall between it and the cell phone. This has led to several unnecessary raids on innocent citizens. This also raises the issue of targeted compilation. Much of the data collected by these devices regards non-targeted citizens in the radius. If their information is not data being targeted, why is it being collected and stored?
The second and most important problem with these devices is their relation to evidence gathering and the Fourth Amendment. This amendment to our Constitution was created and enacted to prevent governments from issuing general warrants and conducting broad searches. The purpose is to protect citizens from illegal search and seizure by law enforcement. The reason for judge issued warrants, and the process that goes along with them is to require a certain level of specificity and outline basis for the search.
Law enforcement are not required to obtain a warrant before using the device to compile data or track someone.
There have also been cases in which the device has been used to track stolen property to a residence, and without a warrant, law enforcement conducted a search on the residence based on information they had received from the device. This has brought up several questions regarding the relationship of the Fourth Amendment and these cell-site simulators and whether the evidence gathered from these devices is admissible in court.