The Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability filed a lawsuit today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to compel 18 federal offices and agencies –including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Office of the Attorney General – to comply with an ignored Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to produce records on the polices and use of cell-site simulators.
The devices in question, colloquially known as “stingrays,” give government the ability to spoof thousands of cellphones into giving up their data. Stingrays can collect vast amounts of cell phone metadata, location information, text messages, and more within a geofenced area. Stingrays can sweep up sensitive and personal information, not just from a suspect, but from hundreds or thousands of people in the vicinity, all without them knowledge.
On March 29, PPSA filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice to produce records on policies governing the extent to which the federal government, in coordination with state and local law enforcement agencies, is using cell-site simulator technology for domestic surveillance. All federal agencies are required by law to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days, excluding “unusual circumstances.” At this time, PPSA has not received a response from any of the DOJ divisions to which the FOIA request was sent. This lawsuit is in response to that failure to respond.
Because stingrays indiscriminately retrieve information from any person within range, they could constitute one of the largest breaches of Fourth Amendment rights since the Snowden revelations.
While this technology is regulated in theory, its application is widely employed by the federal and state governments. In 2018, the ACLU documented at least 14 federal agencies that use stingrays, as well as 75 state agencies. Since then, there has been little insight into how federal and state agencies are actually deploying this increasingly affordable and ubiquitous technology.
Among the agencies cited in the ACLU report are the FBI, the DEA, ICE, the NSA, the IRS, Customs and Border Protection, and three branches of the U.S. military. Each of these agencies and branches potentially has access to the secretly obtained information of hundreds of millions of Americans.
Stingrays pose critical constitutional challenges, especially to the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures. Because stingrays indiscriminately retrieve information from any person within range, they could constitute one of the largest breaches of Fourth Amendment rights since the Snowden revelations.