The question from Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden seemed harmless. He asked the Homeland Security crew if they had noticed, by chance, any foreign operators using super-secret devices to spy on cell phones around the nation’s capital. Then the answer came back — well, yeah, now that you mention it, we have! (Cue the dramatic music, and prepare for a binge of “Homeland.”)
At issue are these things called Stingrays — briefcase-size electronic devices that imitate cell phone towers. By this, I mean they emit an electronic signal which tricks nearby phones into connecting with the Stingray. That gives the Stingray operator all sorts of information about the phone owner’s location, whom he or she is communicating with, and even the content of texts and conversations.
Well, I am guessing a bit about that last part. The capabilities of Stingrays are closely guarded by the manufacturers and their customers, plus there are various types of similar devices with different specs. “Stingray” has been sort of co-opted into a generic term. Like Kleenex — if, you know, tissues could track your phone calls. Anyway, people who want to spy on others just love these gadgets. The American Civil Liberties Union says 73 agencies — including local and federal law enforcement — in 25 states and D.C. have them. A few years back, a top Justice Department official said, “Cell-site simulators are a really critical tool … in finding fugitives and finding kidnap victims and drug cases.”
Of course, Stingrays also sweep up phone data on scads of nearby innocent folks, so the ACLU is concerned about illegal searches, privacy invasion and where Brad really was when he said he was bowling all evening.
So that tells you what Stingrays are, and what they do, but this is what we still don’t know: Who is using them around D.C. and why? Is it a foreign government? Terrorists? A super-secret police operation? Brad’s wife? Homeland Security is offering no additional clues and apparently has not even captured one of these devices — they just think from their surveillance of electronic signals that Stingrays have been at work.
So just when you thought it was safe to go back into the capital … think again.