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Email Suggests Manufacturer of Stingray Surveillance Equipment May Have Lied to FCC

Screen grab from the website for Harris Corp, which is effectively instructing state and local governments to violate or manipulate public records laws

The American Civil Liberties Union has accused the manufacturer of StingRay surveillance products of providing inaccurate information and possibly even lying to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is the agency that is supposed to regulate communications over cable, radio, satellite, television and wire.

Harris Corporation is one of the leading manufacturers of StingRay technology. The technology was “initially designed for the military and intelligence community” and “operates by mimicking cellular service providers’ base stations and forcing all cellular phones in range to register their electronic serial numbers and other identifying information,” according to the ACLU.

The ACLU of Northern California chapter managed to obtain a series of emails from 2010 between the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) and Harris Corporation employees, where the “equipment authorization application for law enforcement use of Harris’ StingRay line of products” is being discussed.

An email sent on June 24, 2010 by Harris representative Tania Hanna states:

Just want to make you aware of the question below we received regarding the application for the Sting Fish. I know many of these questions are generated automatically but it sounds as if there is some confusion about the purpose of the equipment authorization application. As you may recall, the purpose is only to provide state/local law enforcement officials with authority to utilize this equipment in emergency situations. [emphasis added]

Yet, long before 2010, as the ACLU points out, law enforcement at the state and local level often used the surveillance equipment for non-emergencies.

In a letter [PDF] to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the ACLU cites news reports and explains:

…[As] early as 2004, while seeking retroactive approval for purchase of a Harris StingRay/Amberjack system, the Miami-Dade, Florida, Police Department wrote that “[w]ireless phone tracking systems utilized by law enforcement have proven to be an invaluable tool in both the prevention of these [criminal] offenses and the apprehension of individuals attempting to carry out criminal acts.” Likewise, in 2012 the Charlotte, North Carolina, Police Department sought city council approval to purchase a StingRay to “assist in searches related to criminal and/or homeland security investigations.”7 A spokesperson for the Gwinnett County, Georgia, Police Department has stated publicly that his agency uses its StingRay device “in criminal investigations with no restrictions on the type of crime.” A member of the Oakland County, Michigan, Sheriff’s Office described using a Harris Hailstorm device to track and locate fugitives and criminal suspects…

The letter further notes that case records from the Tallahassee Police Department in Florida show that in “nearly 200 cases since 2007” only 29 percent of the instances where StingRay technology was used were emergencies.

“Misstating the purpose of StingRay technology as only for emergency situations fundamentally understates the amount of surveillance that state and local law enforcement will undertake and its related impact on the constitutional rights of Americans,” the ACLU argues. “When technologies like StingRays are used in emergencies, they are likely subject to more permissive constitutional standards than when used as part of everyday law enforcement. Misstating the circumstances in which StingRays are used risks hobbling federal oversight and facilitating Fourth Amendment violations by local law enforcement agencies.”

Also, the ACLU criticizes the FCC for allowing the Harris Corporation to enjoy total secrecy when petitioning the commission “regarding its desire to sell sophisticated surveillance technology to law enforcement agencies.” The public has no idea what the FCC is approving, despite the fact that the use of this technology has profound implications for Americans’ privacy rights.

Harris Corporation has conspired with local and state law enforcement to keep the nature of its business with them secret from the public. The corporation has urged law enforcement to violate and manipulate public records laws so information does not have to be provided when concerned groups or citizens submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The US Marshal’s Service has even been involved in shielding the corporation from transparency.

In response to a letter by Democratic Representative Alan Grayson, an FCC task force is reportedly prepared to review the misuse of StingRay technology, particularly how “criminal gangs and foreign intelligence services” might be using the devices against Americans.

The task force, according to Wheeler, will “develop concrete solutions to protect the cellular network systemically from similar unlawful intrusions and interceptions.”

It should go beyond gangs and foreign intelligence services and examine how the product is being used domestically by law enforcement as well as military branches.

By properly investigating all parties that are using these devices today, the FCC may discover that law enforcement agencies are using the equipment just as regularly as some criminal gangs or foreign intelligence agencies.

CommunityFDL Main Blog

Email Suggests Manufacturer of Stingray Surveillance Equipment May Have Lied to FCC

Screen grab from the website for Harris Corp, which is effectively instructing state and local governments to violate or manipulate public records laws

The American Civil Liberties Union has accused the manufacturer of StingRay surveillance products of providing inaccurate information and possibly even lying to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is the agency that is supposed to regulate communications over cable, radio, satellite, television and wire.

Harris Corporation is one of the leading manufacturers of StingRay technology. The technology was “initially designed for the military and intelligence community” and “operates by mimicking cellular service providers’ base stations and forcing all cellular phones in range to register their electronic serial numbers and other identifying information,” according to the ACLU.

The ACLU of Northern California chapter managed to obtain a series of emails from 2010 between the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) and Harris Corporation employees, where the “equipment authorization application for law enforcement use of Harris’ StingRay line of products” is being discussed.

An email sent on June 24, 2010 by Harris representative Tania Hanna states:

Just want to make you aware of the question below we received regarding the application for the Sting Fish. I know many of these questions are generated automatically but it sounds as if there is some confusion about the purpose of the equipment authorization application. As you may recall, the purpose is only to provide state/local law enforcement officials with authority to utilize this equipment in emergency situations. [emphasis added]

Yet, long before 2010, as the ACLU points out, law enforcement at the state and local level often used the surveillance equipment for non-emergencies.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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