In the September 14-20 edition of the LA Weekly, Jon Campbell describes an FBI device called StingRay, which is used by law enforcement agencies to track mobile phones in real time. It’s small enough to fit in a briefcase, and when it’s nearby, your cell phone thinks it’s the nearest cell tower, and all your calls will flow through it, where they can be recorded and listened to. The FBI says that a search warrant is not required for them to use it.
Campbell writes that "when LAPD fires up a StingRay, it’s often the most powerful signal in the area. Instantly, the department’s spy equipment becomes the go-to ‘tower’ for every cell phone and mobile device nearby–not just the phone carried by the suspect they’re tracking."
The Los Angeles Police Department is quietly using the StingRay, and police in Miami, Fort Worth and Gilbert, Ariz., also are known to have the devices.
So who is authorizing this? Campbell reports that "documents show that, in April 2010, the Los Angeles City Council approved the purchase of $347,050 in additional "StingRay II" equipment–and paid for it with outside funds from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports police functions, over which the city has no control."
Campbell quotes security expert Chris Soghoian as saying, "If the government shows up in your neighborhood, essentially every phone in the neighborhood is going to check in with the government. It’s almost like Marco Polo–the government tower says ‘Marco,’ and every cell phone in the area says ‘Polo.’" Because the StingRay usually grabs the signal of any phone nearby, good guys and bad guys alike could end up as unwitting subscribers to "LAPD Mobile."
But as Campbell says, "On the bright side, they don’t require a contract."