The Baltimore Police Department used to hold the record for the use of stingray cellphone tracking devices (4,300 times), but the US Marshals Services apparently has used stingrays in nearly 6,000 cases.
As USA Today reported, the fact that the U.S. Marshals Service uses stingrays has long been one of law enforcement's worst-kept secrets, though the agency still refuses to acknowledge it. The Marshals Service confirmed its use of the devices only in the process of trying to keep it secret, rejecting a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of its log of cases in which agents had used stingrays.
The Marshals Service's response to that request included an almost totally censored spreadsheet listing its stingray cases, with information about the cases stripped out line by line, which made it possible to count the number of entries the agency had made on its log of stingray uses. The agency described the log in a letter as "a listing of IMSI catcher use," using another name for the technology that intercepts cellphone signals.
Stingrays pose as a cell tower and can pinpoint a cellphone's location within a few yards. They also intercept information about other phones that happen to be nearby. Stingray use is rarely disclosed to suspects or their lawyers, though some state laws require that suspects be notified.
The Marshals Service's Technical Operations Group instructs agents that they should not reveal "sensitive or classified information or programs" without approval from the surveillance unit unless a court orders them to do so.
The Justice Department instructed federal agents last year to obtain a search warrant before using a stingray; in the past, agents were required only to seek a "pen register" order, which requires less judicial scrutiny. The department's policy contains an exception for when agents use a stingray to prevent "escape by a suspect." No one is sure how many times that exception may have been used.
Let's hope the Marshals Service is now complying with the Justice Department's instructions.
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Digital Forensics/Information Security/Information Technology