Technology has a dark side. While it has made our lives easier in a lot of ways, it also opens us up to brand new threats to privacy. And, criminals aren't the only ones you have to worry about. Police departments and other law enforcement agencies across the country are using extremely invasive tech to hack into your cellphones. The FCC is starting to look into this, but the company that makes and sells these gadgets is being extremely secretive.
The gadgets are technically IMSI catchers, but they're commonly known as "stingrays." That's because the StingRay is a popular model produced Harris Corporation, a major supplier for law enforcement agencies around the country. The company also produces varieties with equally slick names like TriggerFish and HailStorm. These gadgets intercept your cellphone signal and let police listen in on calls, read texts and even track your phone's location!
It's difficult to stop these hacks, because they can occur without your knowledge. I told you about a special smartphone that can detect IMSI catchers, but it costs $3,500.
To make and sell a gadget as exotic as StingRay, Harris Corporation had to apply for permission from the FCC. In its original 2010 application to sell IMSI catchers, the company claimed it was only providing the gadgets to be used in "emergency situations" by law enforcement. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging that claim. It has come out in recent years that police departments have abused the surveillance power of the gadgets, used them outside of emergency situations and even used them without a warrant.
The ACLU is arguing that various agencies have been using StingRays outside of emergency situations for a long time, and that Harris Corporation probably knew about that back in 2010. If that's true, it means the company lied to the FCC. That could lead the FCC to suspend Harris' ability to sell ISMI catchers because the original approval was given based on the false testimony.
"Contrary to Harris’ claim, we now know—and Harris should have also been well-aware at the time—that state and local law enforcement agencies were using devices in the StingRay line of surveillance products for purposes other than emergency situations long before 2010, and continued to do so after," the letter states.
Even if Harris didn't know about law enforcement abuses at the time, there's little doubt that police departments are currently overstepping with their use of the gadgets. Emails from 2009 revealed that police in Florida concealed the use of IMSI catchers in cases. A more recent test by security firm Integricell showed that there were 18 possible stingrays around the Washington, D.C., area.
The FCC is now looking into allegations of police abuse. It announced last month that it would begin to investigate "illicit and unauthorized use" of the gadgets. Until that investigation is complete, you should beware - your phone calls might not be safe.