How the Government Keeps Its Phone Spying Gear a Secret

Image: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
Image: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Federal agencies go to extreme lengths to keep powerful phone spying gear secret—and new information shows just how the government pressures investigators to keep it under wraps.

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Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, published today, show how the Department of Justice urges investigators to hide its surveillance techniques from the public. This phone spying relies on a device made by the Harris Corporation. Known as a “Stingray,” it mimics cell-phone towers to grab data from phones. And the government really doesn’t want anyone to know more than that.

“It is imperative that investigators understand that they must minimize, to the greatest extent legally possible, any testimony by TOG personnel or the disclosure of TOG techniques throughout the judicial process,” a document states. (“TOG” stands for the USMS “Technical Operations Group.”)

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“Such disclosure could significantly impair the future effectiveness of the technique and jeopardize the safety of ongoing and future surveillance operations by both the USMS and other investigative agencies.”

It’s basically saying this: The people building cases against criminals need to keep a lid on how Stingrays and similar equipment are used, or it’ll ruin things for everyone.

What’s more, the document tells government workers preparing for trial that they need to collude to conceal the use of this technology: “Any investigator involved in trial preparation in which TOG techniques were employed must contact their TOG inspector for guidance.”

US Marshals purchased at least $10 million in sophisticated phone-spying equipment from Harris Corporation between 2009 and 2014. And the documents released to the ACLU don’t even touch on dirtboxes, another type of phone surveillance tool used by the USMS.

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These are not rare tools only trotted out in terrorism or national security investigations. Both federal and local law enforcement use Stingrays and related devices too, sometimes for matters as commonplace as 911 hangups.

Yet the fetishistic obsession with secret surveillance should not be commonplace. We already know the FBI is so aggressive about secrecy that it encourages law enforcement to let criminals walk rather than expose how police caught them using Harris Corporation phone surveillance gear. We also know that the US Marshals have seized police records in the past to keep its Stingray surveillance tactics hidden.

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“It’s all part of the same very disturbing pattern of concealment,” ACLU lawyer Nathan Wessler told Gizmodo.

Senior writer at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

gn0mex
Professor Dog

“It is imperative that investigators understand that they must minimize, to the greatest extent legally possible”

This seems fair. They’re not telling them to outright lie or obfuscate information. They’re urging investigators to work within the bounds of the existing laws to say as little as possible. If investigators go beyond that and say things the government doesn’t want them to and then the government starts retaliating in some way against the investigators, that’s another matter all together.

The solution is the same as it always is. Change the laws. Good luck with that, but that’s always the solution. You won’t change the machinations of the government without changing the laws.