Leave a comment

Worst-kept secret in government spying gets less secret

Worst-kept secret in government spying gets less secret
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

It's been common knowledge for a while that the government tracks and listens in on cellphones using a technology called StingRay. However, not much is known about how it works or how many agencies and police departments use it.

Now we know why. The company that manufactures the StingRay devices, Harris Corporation, keeps the lid on how the gadgets work by requiring anyone who uses it to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Remember the guy who got the deal of a lifetime after being arrested for armed robbery? He got it thanks to the StingRay non-disclosure agreement. But there are people working to uncover the secrets of this weapon, for better or for worse.

The maker of the StingRay and other similar products like HailStorm and Triggerfish is coming under fire for their shady business practices.

“It might be a totally legitimate business interest, or maybe they’re trying to keep people from realizing there are bigger privacy problems,” said Orin S. Kerr, a privacy law expert at George Washington University. “What’s the secret that they’re trying to hide?”

The Harris Corporation, and subsequently the federal government that uses the Harris gadgets, are being taken to court for the information they're hiding from the general public. The problem is that the StingRay technology doesn't just scan for a specific cell number. It intercepts and analyzes cell data for every phone in the vicinity, like calls, texts, emails and other information. And authorities are using this information without warrants.

What's really shady is that the taxpayers and offices that are buying the technology don't even get a demonstration of how the tech works. This non-disclosure agreement keeps anyone from knowing how exactly it works and who is using it.

Jon Michaels, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies government procurement, said Harris’s role with the nondisclosure agreements gave the company tremendous power over privacy policies in the public arena. [...] “This is like the privatization of a legal regime,” he said. Referring to Harris, he said: “They get to call the shots.”

Public servants have sued for information from the Harris Corporation and the federal government, but to no avail.

A fuller explanation of the F.B.I.’s position is provided in two publicly sworn affidavits about StingRay, including one filed in 2014 in Virginia. In the affidavit, a supervisory special agent, Bradley S. Morrison, said disclosure of the technology’s specifications would let criminals, including terrorists, “thwart the use of this technology.”

“Disclosure of even minor details” could harm law enforcement, he said, by letting “adversaries” put together the pieces of the technology like assembling a “jigsaw puzzle.” He said the F.B.I. had entered into the nondisclosure agreements with local authorities for those reasons. In addition, he said, the technology is related to homeland security and is therefore subject to federal control.

We may not get to the bottom of the Harris Corporation's technology anytime soon, and subsequently won't know what rights are being violated by their technology. But, I'll be keeping you updated on the latest developments with this tech and how it affects your rights.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Next Story
View Comments ()
Listen in on a real tech support scam
Previous Happening Now

Listen in on a real tech support scam

Video game warning: Kid racks up $4,500 bill!
Next Happening Now

Video game warning: Kid racks up $4,500 bill!