The suitcase-size surveillance tool commonly called a StingRay mimics a cellphone tower, allowing authorities to track individual cellphones in real time. Users of the device, which include scores of law enforcement agencies, sign a non-disclosure agreement when they purchase it, pledging not to divulge its use, even in court cases against defendants the device helped capture. Those restrictions remain in place despite a decision last year by the police in Charlotte to disclose to judges more details about the device’s use in criminal cases and laws in several states requiring warrants whenever the device is employed, McClatchy Newspapers reports .
A report this week from the House Reform and Government Oversight Committee raises new concerns about the devices’ popularity. “Cell-site simulator use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the use, extent and legality of government surveillance authority,” it said. The FBI is a major user of the device. The House report said that agency alone had more than 194 cell-site simulators in use across the U.S. Until recently, the FBI avoided disclosing its own use of the surveillance apparatus and also “its role in assisting state and local law enforcement agencies in obtaining the devices,” the committee said. Cell-site simulators were developed for battlefield use, allowing roving infantry teams or airborne units to track the cellphone signatures of enemy combatants and kill them. Their civilian use has soared. In addition to the FBI’s 194 devices, the report found them sprinkled among federal agencies: the U.S. Marshals Service has 70, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has 59 and even the Internal Revenue Service maintains two of the electronic tools in its investigative arsenal.