Ten with Ben – Episode 4: Stingray Devices

A Stingray device is a device that is called a Cellular Site Simulator and basically it works with cell phones and it simulates a cell tower.

Hi, I’m Attorney Ben Schwartz,

Today we are going to answer a viewer question about Stingray devices. The viewer emailed in and said, “What is all this in the news about Stingray devices? What are they and can you explain to people from a legal standpoint what they need to know about this?” A Stingray device is a device that is called a Cellular Site Simulator and basically it works with cell phones and it simulates a cell tower.

So if you have a cell phone and let’s say you are driving along in your car, as you are driving along your cell phone is pinging a signal out to the nearest cell tower. It pings that signal out to whichever tower seems to have the strongest signal. In that way, you are always connected. If you are downloading data on your cell phone, emails, calendar, on Facebook or Twitter, and you get a phone call. When you are talking on the phone, you maintain a connection with a cell phone tower.

Let’s say that you get in the car and you drive to somebody’s house an hour away. While you are on the road, your cell phone does not maintain the signal with the first tower near your house. It connects to successive towers as you are driving through that hour drive to wherever you are going. Whichever tower comes along and has the strongest signal, it is going to skip to that tower, to the next tower, and to the next tower while you continue on your journey.

What a Stingray device does is, it is a device the police and the federal government use to get data about peoples’ cell phones. So for instance, if they know that you just robbed the bank and they have your cell phone information, they can watch your cell phone and see where you are going in order to determine where you took the money and where you are likely to be hiding-out.

The problem with Cell Site Simulator, which is sort of the common term for the device manufactured by Harris Corporation. The problem is, we do not really know what information the government is getting. Are they able to listen to phone calls? Are they able to read your text messages? Are they able to read the emails that are being sent to-and-from your cell phone? I have no idea…

As we are recording this, I am in Delaware and I am a Delaware attorney. I can tell you that the use of Stingray devices, Cell Site Simulators has been in the newspapers in Delaware Online, which is the online version of the biggest newspaper in Delaware on numerous occasions. One of the most recent things to happen in this state is that there was a lawsuit filed in 2016 in a case call Jonathan Rutenberg versus the Chief Deputy Attorney General of Delaware Department of Justice, civil action N16a – 02006 RRC. In this case, essentially Jonathan Rutenberg filed a Freedom of Information Act request with a state agency seeking information about their use of Stingray devices.They said, go pound sand and so he filed a lawsuit to get the Superior Court to review it. There was litigation over that and I believe he did get some information, but again, there is more questions than answers.

The way something becomes a law is, a bill is filed. It has got to go through the legislature and be signed into law. In Congress, in the federal system, there was a bill filed by a Utah state Representative named Jason Chaffetz and the bill was called the Cell Location Privacy Act of 2017. It was filed in February of 2017, here it is a year later almost and that bill, I believe was referred to a committee, and has not come out of committee. I do not know if that means that the bills dead, if it is going to come out of committee with recommendations for changes, or if it is going to go forward. But essentially, if it became a law, it would impose criminal penalties on people who use Stingray devices or cell site simulators without a court warrant.

You are supposed to get a warrant if you are going to be tapping somebody’s phone. The problem is that a lot of government entities, a lot of State Police agencies, local Municipal Police agencies, may be using these devices. We do not know that they are using the devices and we do not know what information they are getting. We do not know if they are getting warrants in order to use the devices. Obviously it is a very powerful tool in the right hands. It is a very powerful tool for law enforcement, but at the same time, as American citizens, we do not really want our government spying on us unless they have a reason to believe that we are committing a crime and then they should go get a warrant and use the warrant to authorize the use of a Stingray device.

I am interested in knowing what people think. Do you not care if the government listens to your phone conversations? Do you not care if the government reads your text messages and your emails? Or is it something where you really feel strongly that the government has no business seeing what is coming into and going out of your cell phone? Is a cell phone the type of thing where you should have the right to privacy, or is it the type of thing were anybody could just look over your shoulder and see what you are reading or what you are typing, so what real privacy should you have in your cell phone?

I am interested to know what you think. Thanks for watching, this Ten with Ben. I am Attorney Ben Schwartz, send me an email and let me know what you think.

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