Secrecy in Law Enforcement Technology Subverts Law and Justice


by Eric Neville

As society is ignorant of its technology, we steer our democracy blindly.  As we willfully conceal information from ourselves, we put blinders on society.  Yet we need to craft our public policy to address the perpetually moving target that is technology.  Without encompassing transparency and accountability legislation for technology used in law enforcement, we will continue to see legislators outpaced, judges kept in the dark, and a public willfully deceived.

For a case example, I offer the Stingray cell site simulator equipment and its corruption of the legal process, and I reference the issues addressed in a letter from twelve United States Senators.[1a][1b]  I must immediately point out that even the name of this technology may be disputed, having been referred to even in courts by various “inscrutable euphemisms“, showing from the first step impedance to the proper understanding which is necessary for just reckoning.[1c]

This Stingray equipment, among its other capabilities, hijacks the signalling of mobile phones by overpowering and/or jamming cell tower radio waves, forcing up to thousands of mobile phones within about one mile to drop their connection to cell service and connect instead to the equipment.[2a][2b][2c][2d][2e]  Once connected to the device, phones can be commanded to reveal their telephone number (silent call), increase transmission strength, use a weakened encryption protocol or no encryption at all, or send onboard information such as unique identifiers and location data.[2f][2g][2h][2i][2j][2k]  An undisclosed and unverifiable number of times, its use has surreptitiously violated the Communications Actswept up data on innocent people and violated the Fourth Amendmentblocked or dropped innocent person’s calls and data access, including emergencycalls; broken advanced encryptionrecorded texts and calls; and snooped contacted numbers and stored photos.[2l][2m][2n][2o][2p][2q][2r][2s][2t][2u][2v][2w][2x]  (Via the same telephony vulnerabilities, related equipment has also been used to track movement, send text message spam, and surveil then blackmail municipal governance personnel.[2y][2z][2zz])

The fundamental issue is that technology that cannot be inspected for performance by the body politic cannot be assessed as to legal propriety, including not least civil rights.  The stakes are only multiplied in an era of burgeoning automation, technology which carries its own agency, thus becoming an inherently unknown quantity.  The agency of automation is so powerful that, as anyone who has used a computer or smart phone can attest, at any time automated equipment can unpredictably deviate in behavior from even the intent of designers, let alone the understanding of users.  Moreover, with artificial intelligence looming on the horizon, automation’s potential impact only expands.  The quantum leap in power that the unmanned agency of automation already presents means that secret technology is secret policing.

Note also that the Senators’ letter derives from concerns first raised by common citizens, and that — disappointingly — no one in law enforcement came forward to raise issue with the equipment’s violations of laws or rights.  Apparently, even after years of use, no one in law enforcement sufficiently understood the actual performance of the equipment, that performance’s interaction with laws and rights, and the consequences to a free society.  This proves that the body politic must have the access to scrutinize equipment considered for use in law enforcement, and the opportunity to assess collectively the actual performance and its ramifications on society, not least in re laws and civil rights.

Hundreds of articles have been published describing the physical militarization of police agencies.[5a]  The employment of this signal hijacking equipment, which is still actively deployed secret military technology, apparently reflects the same cultural approach, applied in the information sphere, including summarily viewing the public as “adversaries“.[5b][5c][5d]

The fact that key evidence has been dropped and criminal cases have been reduced and apparently even dropped entirely to avoid cross examination and to obscure the useand even the secrecy itself of signal hijacking equipment is proof that the public welfare has not been the first priority in adoption of such equipment.  In fact, technology secrecy is fundamentally incompatible with justice, because as Judge David Campbell noted in United States v. Rigmaiden, “How can we litigate in this case whether this technology that was used in this case violates the Fourth Amendment without knowing precisely what it can do?”  And how can we know precisely what automated equipment, like a given Stingray model, can really do if we — the people — cannot inspect it and its actual operation? [6a][6b][6c][6d][6e][6f][6g][6h][6i][6j][6k]

In fact, the use of Stingrays has been racially biased in violation of law, systematically suborned officers of the law by demanding concealment of evidence, undermined the separation of powers by excluding the judicial and legislative branches via so-called “parallel construction“, and in at least one case even lead to an armed confrontation of an innocent person in their home.[7a][7b][7c][7d][7e]

This clouded history betrays the inherent conflict in deploying secret technology for democratic governance.  Only after many years of offenses against the American people, yet based on insights from that same American people, have underlying violations of law and rights and public trust been exposed, showing that technology cannot be properly understood and vetted for fitness in upholding the law if it cannot be publicly assessed.

In further support of this observation, note that we live in an era in which the daily business of government is vastly larger than any one person can comprehend.  The still-expanding organizational intricacy of humanity is taking on the scale of complexity of systems such as the human body.  Although we all have lungs, a liver, and a blood system and rely on them to survive, understanding them is hardly a given, even though we own them.  We face a parallel challenge governmentally, in that understanding the structure and impacts of our systems built of humans is hardly a given, even though we own them:  regulatory capture, mass incarceration, carbon emissions, etc.  Just because we rely on a system built of humans, or even are ourselves part of such a system, does not perforce grant us understanding of that system.  In our own way, we are like a formicary, which through its emergent properties effects much more collectively than any individual ant comprehends.[9a][9b][9c]  As humans, consciously comprehensive coordination is our opportunity, and our responsibility.  The best possible government requires the best possible understanding of government, which requires all hands on deck.  And that absolutely includes public scrutiny of technology — not least automated technology, which compounds the complexity and agency of systems, and thus compounds our challenge in tracking the actions and impacts of those systems.

Even the corpus of our federal statues alone, a human product that is not automated and is but a fraction of total American legal constructs, exceeds in bulk and complexity the comprehension of any person or even subgroup.[10a][10b][10c][10d][10e][10f][10g][10h][10i]  Just as computer security is only effective if it responds to failure reports from all corners, and public health programs must respond to reports from all corners, legal integrity too can only be protected if it is open to reports from all corners.  Prejudicially ruling out observations by any individual or segment of the populace jeopardizes the welfare of the whole.  The countless violations of laws and rights perpetrated over many years by use of Stingray equipment, born and cocooned in secrecy, are testament to what happens when we fail to grasp this inescapable truth:  we are capable of creating more than we intend or even understand, and secrecy undermines the comprehension necessary for collective welfare and societal advancement.[10j][10k][10l][10m][10n][10o][10p][10q][10r]

The normalization of violating the law within a siloed culture of law enforcement itself illuminates how expectations of secrecy sabotage hallowed American values, such as rule of law, that are necessary to realize justice.  That government has been systematically violating its own law is proof positive — if any new proof were necessary — that our government is still dependent on its originator, the people, for legal and moral oversight.

Additional examples such as Tor exploitsStuxnet, and Hemisphere further illustrate the legal liabilities of secrecy in technology.[12a][12b][12c]

Essentially, because the nature of humanity and its laws exceeds the comprehension of any individual or subgroup — and moreover because automation has transformed technology into a protean actor — secrecy in technology applied to law enforcement inherently subverts the collective involvement necessary for the intellectual coherence that undergirds legality itself.

We need binding disclosure of all technology deployed in the sphere of justice.

An earlier version was previously released as an open letter to the President

[1a] Wikipedia. “Stingray phone tracker”.

[1b] Franken, Al, et al. 2016-10-06. Letter to Tom Wheeler. https://assets.documentcloud. org/documents/3124334/Senate-Letter-to-FCC-on-Stingray-Devices.pdf

[1c] Woolf, Nicky. 2015-09-04. “2,000 cases may be overturned because police used secret Stingray surveillance”. The Guardian. surveillance

[2a] Daniel, Larry E. “Cellular Analysis for Legal Professionals”. Guardian Digital Forensics.

[2b] Stone, Jeff. 2015-03-02. “StingRay Phone Tracker Knocks Out Cell Networks, FBI Reveals”. International
Business Times.

[2c] “3G-GSM Tactical Interception & Target Location”. Gamma Group. GSM.pdf

[2d] Kelly, John. 2013-12-08. “Cellphone data spying: It’s not just the NSA”. USA Today.

[2e] Gallagher, Ryan. 2013-09-25. “Meet the machines that steal your phone’s data”. Ars Technica.

[2f] Israel, Tamir, et al. 2016. “Gone Opaque? An Analysis of Hypothetical IMSI Catcher Overuse in Canada”. Telecom
Transparency Project, et al.

[2g] The Secret Surveillance Catalogue. “Stingray I/II”. The Intercept.

[2h] Zetter, Kim. 2016-05-06. “Hacker Lexicon: Stingrays, the Spy Tool the Government Tried, and Failed, to Hide”.

[2i] Dabrowski, Adrian, et el. 2014. “IMSI-Catch Me If You Can: IMSI-Catcher-Catchers”.

[2j] “Department of Justice Policy Guidance: Use of Cell-Site Simulator Technology”. United States Department of

[2k] Omand, Geordon. 2016-03-24. “Rights groups want to know if police use ‘Stingray’ device to collect cell data”. The
Canadian Press.

[2l] Barrett, Devlin. 2014-11-13. “Americans’ Cellphones Targeted in Secret U.S. Spy Program”. Wall Street Journal.

[2m] KXTV ABC 10. 2016-01-08. “New developments in Sacramento “Stingray” case”.

[2n] Barrett, Brian. 2016-08-16. “The Baltimore PD’s Race Bias Extends to High-Tech Spying, Too”. Wired.

[2o] Pagliery, Jose. 2014-11-14. “U.S. planes spy on American phones”. Cable News Network.

[2p] Zetter, Kim. 2014-10-17. “Cops Need a Warrant to Grab Your Cell Tower Data, Florida Court Rules”. Wired.

[2q] Fenton, Justin. 2016-04-25. “Key evidence in city murder case tossed due to stingray use”. Baltimore Sun.

[2r] Emmons, Alex. 2016-03-31. “Maryland Appellate Court Rebukes Police for Concealing Use of Stingrays”. The

[2s] Weiser, Benjamin. 2016-07-12. “D.E.A. Needed Warrant to Track Suspect’s Phone, Judge Says”. New York

[2t] Zetter, Kim. 2015-03-01. “Feds Admit Stingrays Can Disrupt Cell Service of Bystanders”. Wired.

[2u] Freeze, Colin. 2016-04-18. “RCMP listening device capable of knocking out 911 calls, memo reveals”. Globe and Mail. reveals/article29672075/

[2v] Winston, Ali. 2015-08-07. “Chicago and Los Angeles have used ‘dirt box’ surveillance for a decade”. Reveal.

[2w] Zetter, Kim. 2015-10-28. “Turns Out Police Stingray Spy Tools Can Indeed Record Calls”. Wired.

[2x] Baker, Karl. 2016-02-20. “Delaware police can covertly collect cellphone data”. The News Journal.

[2y] Gallager, Sean. 2011-11-25. “We’re watching: malls track shopper’s cell phone signals to gather marketing data”. Ars Technica. marketing-data/

[2z] Muncaster, Phil. 2014-03-26. “Chinese cops cuff 1,500 in fake base station spam raid”. The Register.

[2zz] Maphumulo, Solly. 2015-08-04. “Man in dock over R25m bugging device”. Independent Online.

[5a] Google news search for terms: united states police militarization. ab&hl=en&gl=us&authuser=0&tbm=nws&btnG=Search&q=united+states+police+militarization

[5b] Fenton, Justin. 2014-11-17. “Judge threatens detective with contempt for declining to reveal cellphone tracking methods”. Baltimore Sun. contempt-20141117-story.html

[5c] Heath, Brad. 2016-04-20. “FBI warned agents not to share tech secrets with prosecutors”. USA Today.
[5d] The Economist. 2016-01-30. “The StingRay’s tale”. courts-take-aim-technology-beloved-countrys-police-forces-secretive

[6a] Farivar, Cyrus. 2014-11-18. “Prosecutors drop key evidence at trial to avoid explaining “stingray” use”. Ars Technica. use/

[6b] Nakashima, Ellen. 2015-02-22. “Secrecy around police surveillance equipment proves a case’s undoing”. Washington Post. equipment-proves-a-cases-undoing/2015/02/22/ce72308a-b7ac-11e4-aa05-1ce812b3fdd2_story.html

[6c] Patrick, Robert. 2015-04-19. “Controversial secret phone tracker figured in dropped St. Louis case”. St. Louis Post- Dispatch. louis-case/article_fbb82630-aa7f-5200-b221-a7f90252b2d0.html

[6d] Heath, Brad. 2015-08-24. “Police secretly track cellphones to solve routine crimes”. USA Today.

[6e] Farivar, Cyrus. 2015-04-29. “Robbery suspect pulls guilty plea after stingray disclosure, case dropped”. Ars Technica. dropped/

[6f] Zetter, Kim. 2014-06-19. “Emails Show Feds Asking Florida Cops to Deceive Judges”. Wired.

[6g] Wessler, Nathan Freed. 2016-01-25. “New Evidence Shows Milwaukee Police Hide Stingray Usage From Courtand Defense”. American Civil Liberties Union. police-hide-stingray-usage-courts-and-defense

[6h] Cameron, Dell, et al. 2016-10-07. “Police documents reveal how law enforcement keep Stingray use secret”. Daily

[6i] Pagliery, Jose. 2015-03-18. “The FBI has a secret device to locate criminal suspects, but it would apparently rather let suspects go free than reveal in court any details of the high tech tracker”. Cable News Network.

[6j] Greenemeier, Larry. 2015-06-25. “What Is the Big Secret Surrounding Stingray Surveillance?”. Scientific American.

[6k] Valentino-DeVries, Jennifer. 2011-09-22. “‘Stingray’ Phone Tracker Fuels Constitutional Clash”. Wall Street

[7a] “Complaint for Relief Against Unauthorized Radio Operation and Willful Interference with Cellular Communications”,
In re Baltimore City Police Dep’t, Baltimore, Md. 2016-08-16.

[7b] Farivar, Cyrus. 2014-06-20. “Legal experts: Cops lying about cell tracking “is a stupid thing to do””. Ars Technica.

[7c] Bates, Adam. 2017-01-25. “Stingray: A New Frontier in Police Surveillance”. Cato Institute.

[7d] Greenfield, Scott H. 2013-08-10. August 10, 2013 by SHG. “Challenging the Ghost of “Parallel Construction””.
Simple Justice.

[7e] Joseph, George. 2016-10-18. “Racial Disparities in Police ‘Stingray’ Surveillance, Mapped”. CityLab.

[9a] Orphanides, K.G. 2015-11-12. “Ant colonies react to attack like a single ‘superorganism'”. Wired.

[9b] Tyson, Peter. “Everyday Examples” (Emergence).

[9c] Casti, John L. “Complexity”.

[10a] United States Code. Office of the Law Revision Counsel.

[10b] Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. United States Government Publishing Office. ECFR

[10c] United States Case Law. Justia.

[10d] National Conference of State Legislatures. 2011-12-27. “New Laws Ring in the New Year”.

[10e] Walsh, Brian W. 2009-07-21. “You’re (Probably a Federal Criminal”. Fox News.

[10f] Ritz, Erica. 2014-11-04. “David Barton Explains How You Could Be Committing Three Felonies a Day”. The
Blaze. day/

[10g] Healy, Gene. 2004-12-17. “Making A Federal Case Out of Almost Everything”. Reason.

[10h] Kozinsky, Alex and Tseytlin, Misha. 25-04-2009. “You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal”. In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article, The Aims of the Criminal Law. articles/Youre_Probably_a_Federal_Criminal.pdf

[10i] Wu, Tim. 2007-10-14. “American Lawbreaking”. Slate.

[10j] Farivar, Cyrus. 2015-06-05 “County sheriff warrantlessly used stingray 500+ times, claims to have no records”. Ars Technica. have-no-records/

[10k] Zetter, Kim. 2014-03-03. “Florida Cops’ Secret Weapon: Warrantless Cellphone Tracking”. Wired.

[10l] Fenton, Justin. 2015-04-09. “Baltimore Police used secret technology to track cellphones in thousands of cases”.
Baltimore Sun.

[10m] Lewis, Renee. 2014-08-28. “Tacoma police use stingray system to sweep cellphone data”. Al Jazeera America.

[10n] Goldstein, Joseph. 2016-02-11. “New York Police Are Using Covert Cellphone Trackers, Civil Liberties Group
Says”. New York Times.

[10o] Glawe, Justin. 2015-03-31. “Freddy Martinez Is Exposing Chicago Cops’ NSA-Style Surveillance Gear”. Vice.

[10p] Zetter, Kim. 2016-01-27. “California Police Used Stingrays in Planes to Spy on Phones”. Wired.

[10q] Vielmetti, Bruce. 2016-02-01. “Groups decry Milwaukee police’s warrantless use of ‘Stingray’ tracking”. Journal Sentinel. b99660842z1-367246261.html

[10r] Dobbyn, Paula. 2016-08-18. “City officials silent on cell phone tracking device bought by APD”. KTUU NBC TV. html

[12a] Cox, Joseph. 2016-01-05. “The FBI’s ‘Unprecedented’ Hacking Campaign Targeted Over a Thousand
Computers”. Motherboard. thousand-computers

[12b] Butler, Alan. 2013. “When Cyberweapons End up on Private Networks: Third Amendment Implications for Cybersecurity Policy”. American University Law Review. article=1886&context=aulr

[12c] Lipp, Kenneth. 2016-10-25. “AT&T Is Spying on Americans for Profit, New Documents Reveal”. Daily Beast.


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