A Florida man got probation for a robbery instead of four or more years in prison in a plea deal after police refused to disclose information about a secret surveillance tool, a cell-tower simulator called StingRay that the Washington Post says raises significant privacy concerns. A gag order imposed by the FBI on grounds that discussing the device would compromise its effectiveness has left judges, the public and defendants in the dark on how it works. That secrecy has hindered debate over whether the StingRay's use respects civil liberties. The StingRay elicits signals from all mobile phones in its vicinity, collecting information not just about a criminal suspect's communications but also about those of hundreds of law-abiding citizens.
The Tallahassee, Fl., police used the StingRay or a similar device in 250 investigations over six years, a surprisingly high rate given that StingRay manufacturer, the Harris Corp., told the Federal Communications Commission that the device is used only in emergencies. At least 48 state and local law enforcement agencies have bought it. The secrecy surrounding them prompted a backlash. A Charlotte prosecutor is reviewing whether prosecutors illegally withheld information about the device's use from defendants. In Tacoma, Wa., after a newspaper found that judges in almost 200 cases had no idea they were issuing orders for the StingRay, the courts set new rules requiring police to disclose the tool's use.