FBI Admits Its Secret Spy Tool Screws Up Bystanders' Cell Service

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The FBI wants to keep stealthy phone surveillance tools called Stingrays as secret as possible, for obvious reasons (to use them whenever they want with as little oversight as possible, growing tipsy on the intoxicating liquor of unfettered power). And now another reason for secrecy just came out: Using Stingrays can disrupt regular peoples' cell service.

In a recently unsealed court document obtained by the ACLU, an FBI agent admitted that Stingray devices, which pinpoint and collect data from suspects' phones by dragnetting the phones nearby, can interfere with cell service for those innocent bystanders. Wired's Kim Zetter looked at the court document, where Special Agent Michael A. Scimeca admits that Stingray devices can "intermittently disrupt cellular service" for people:

The document was previously sealed and only came to light after the defense attorney for a defendant in the case filed a motion last year to dismiss evidence collected by the stingray. It's the first time the ACLU has seen the FBI acknowledge the stingray's disruptive capabilities and raises a number of questions about the nature of the disruption and whether the Federal Communications Commission knew about it when it certified the equipment.


Zetter talked to Nate Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU, about why people should be concerned. "If an emergency or important/urgent call (to a doctor, a loved one, etc.) is blocked or dropped by this technology, that's a serious problem," he told her. Just because Stingrays are designed to recognize and allow through 911 calls doesn't mean they aren't disconnecting other important phone calls.

This sort of admission is exactly why Stingray use needs to be interrogated. Right now, law enforcement are using these surveillance tools without proper oversight, and we don't know the extent to which they're screwing with our service.


It's not like cops and the FBI are only busting out Stingrays in grave cases where the terrorists will win unless we can hack their phones. In Florida, for example, Stingrays have been used for common, low-level crimes like theft and even a 911 hangup. I'm not saying that there is never any value in using Stingrays, or that collateral cell service interruption is never acceptable in the pursuit of criminal justice. But it's disturbing that the FBI and local law enforcement have so much uncontested power to decide when to fry innocent peoples' cell service.

Next time it seems like your cell service sucks, add the cops to the list of potential suspects.[Wired]


Contact the author at kate.knibbs@gizmodo.com.
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