Long-secret Stingray Manuals Detail How Police Can Spy on Phones

Photo: U.S. Patent and Trade Office.

Photo: U.S. Patent and Trade Office.

Harris Corp.'s Stingray surveillance device has been one of the most closely guarded secrets in law enforcement for more than 15 years. The company and its police clients across the United States have fought to keep information about the mobile phone-monitoring boxes from the public against which they are used. The Intercept has obtained several Harris instruction manuals spanning roughly 200 pages and meticulously detailing how to create a cellular surveillance dragnet.

Harris has fought to keep its surveillance equipment, which carries price tags in the low six figures, hidden from both privacy activists and the general public, arguing that information about the gear could help criminals. Accordingly, an older Stingray manual released under the Freedom of Information Act to news website TheBlot.com last year was almost completely redacted. So too have law enforcement agencies at every level, across the country, evaded almost all attempts to learn how and why these extremely powerful tools are being used — though court battles have made it clear Stingrays are often deployed without any warrant. The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department alone has snooped via Stingray, sans warrant, over 300 times.

Richard Tynan, a technologist with Privacy International, told The Intercept that the “manuals released today offer the most up-to-date view on the operation of” Stingrays and similar cellular surveillance devices, with powerful capabilities that threaten civil liberties, communications infrastructure, and potentially national security. He noted that the documents show the “Stingray II” device can impersonate four cellular communications towers at once, monitoring up to four cellular provider networks simultaneously, and with an add-on can operate on so-called 2G, 3G, and 4G networks simultaneously.

And the Harris software isn’t just extremely powerful, Tynan added, but relatively simple, providing any law enforcement agent with a modicum of computer literacy the ability to spy on large groups of people:

The ease with which the StingRay II can be used is quite striking and there do not seem to be any technical safeguards against misuse. … It also allows the operator to configure virtually every aspect of the operation of the fake cell tower. … The Gemini platform also allows for the logging and analysis of data to and from the network and “Once a message to/from any active subscriber in the Subscriber list is detected, Gemini will notify the user.” How many innocent communications of the public are analyzed during this process?

Tynan also raised questions about the extent to which Stingrays may be disrupting the communications infrastructure, including existing cellular towers.

Click here for the full article on The Intercept.