In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government recently cracked down on the use of mobile phone tracking devices. To use one of these devices, the U.S. Department of Justice stated, a warrant must first be obtained.
The technology is known as a “stingray,” which The Guardian described as “a suitcase-sized device” which picks up nearby cell phone data by “tricking” the cell phones into thinking that it’s a cell tower. This allows the stingray to identify the phone number of each device even if the owner doesn’t make any calls or send any text messages — thereby allowing authorities to pinpoint an individual’s location simply by scanning the neighborhood for his or her cell phone.
Stingrays have proven to be invaluable for law enforcement agencies; as the BBC reported, police units often use stingrays in investigations involving kidnappings, fugitive hunts, and narcotics trafficking cases.
But as ComputerWeekly.com noted, stingrays are also capable of picking up a wealth of data when sweeping an area beyond just phone numbers. They can intercept phone calls and texts that are sent from any cell phones in the targeted area, and can also intercept calls and texts that are sent to any phone in the targeted area.
The issue with stingrays is a matter of individual privacy, civil liberties groups have stated. If an individual hasn’t committed a crime, should authorities be able to infiltrate his or her private communication lines? And should they be capable of storing records of that data “just in case”?
Americans are relying on their phones now more so than ever before; although security is certainly a priority, privacy needs to be addressed as well. Many consumers would argue that intercepting text messages could actually be more invasive and destructive than entering a person’s home.
It’s estimated that American consumers will spend more than $140 billion annually through their mobile phones by 2019; digital receipts and bank account statements can be sent through an app, an email, and even a text message. If the right text message falls into the wrong hands, a credit or debit card number isn’t too difficult to find — and from there on out, everything down to the individual’s Social Security number is up for grabs.
Currently, according to the BBC, stingrays are monitored closely to ensure that they don’t fall into the wrong hands; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that there are around 53 agencies in only 21 states that are using stingrays.
Nevertheless, this technology isn’t exactly new. Details regarding how stingrays work and when they’re actually used have been “shrouded in secrecy,” the BBC stated, which has made it difficult to pass any regulations or restrictions on the use of stingrays.
The ACLU has said that this federal ruling is a “positive first step” but that there are still many loopholes around the policy.