The Massachusetts State Police are keeping a close watch on the growing controversy around the nationwide use of surveillance equipment that vacuums up the cell phone activity of suspects and innocent bystanders. The devices work by tricking cell phones into connecting to them by spoofing a cell tower before relaying cell phone activity to the nearest real cell tower, which some call a “man-in-the-middle attack.”
Cell site simulators, commonly known as “Stingrays” (manufactured by Harris Corporation) or “IMSI catchers” in reference to their ability to scoop up the International Mobile Subscriber Identity of all cell phones within range of the device, have become controversial due to their apparently routine deployment by law enforcement without obtaining probable-cause warrants and the nature of the equipment which necessarily collects private information from everyone within its broad range – including location data, IMSI information, and data pertaining to phone calls and texts – despite the fact that they are not even suspected of committing a crime.
In response to a public records request for documents held by the Massachusetts State Police containing the words Stingray, IMSI catcher, cell site simulator, or dirtbox, an attorney with the State Police produced several partially-redacted emails referencing and summarizing recently published articles pertaining to the use of the aforementioned equipment. In a letter accompanying the responsive documents, the attorney explains that “the Department has redacted portions of the enclosed records that could possibly disclose . . . sources of information.” All senders and recipients of the emails have been redacted.
The first email (screenshot below), dated March 4, 2014, contains several recipients and the full-text of an article published by Wired which references not only the frequent use of cell site simulators by Florida police, but also the existence of non-disclosure agreements with the manufacturer of the devices which prevents the officers from informing judges or the public about their use.
Another email, dated May 13, 2014, contains the full-text of an article in Homeland Security News Wire detailing the Wisconsin Department of Justice's unwillingness to acknowledge the deployment of Stingrays, claiming that revealing such information could impede law enforcement investigations.
On June 4, 2014, an email was sent and subsequently forwarded to several recipients which contains a report published in Wired describing the lengths to which the U.S. Marshals Service went to keep hidden from the American Civil Liberties Union documents detailing the use of Stingrays by a Florida police department. According to the article, the ACLU was set to review documents related to an investigation by the Sarasota Police Department when U.S. Marshals, claiming that the documents are their rightful property, scooped up the documents from the police department and brought them to an undisclosed location in order to prevent the ACLU from learning the details of the use of the surveillance equipment. Recently, it was revealed by The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. Marshals have an NSA-style dragnet surveillance program of their own, which involves placing a type of cell site simulator known as “dirtboxes” in Cessna aircraft with the capability of vacuuming up cell phone communication data from nearly every person living in the United States.
An August 14, 2014, email contains a link to a report from SC Magazine about the creation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of a task force to investigate the “illegal use of Stingray devices against Americans.” Instead of investigating the warrant-free deployment of the cell site simulators by law enforcement, however, the task force is looking into how the technology can be exploited by criminals and foreign intelligence services.
An email (below) sent on October 19, 2014, begins with “Here is a link I thought you might be interested in, regarding the Stingray,” followed by a link to yet another article in Wired covering the ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that (quote from article) “obtaining cell phone location data to track a person's location or movement in real time constitutes a Fourth Amendment search and therefore requires a court-ordered warrant.”
Two days later, an email was sent with the subject line “More articles” containing links to reports in Vice News and Star News Online which reveal the use of cell phone tracking technology by law enforcement agencies in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina, respectively.
A November 19, 2014 email contains a link to an article in The Baltimore Sun describing an altercation between Detective John L. Haley of the Baltimore police and Baltimore Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams in which Detective Haley initially denied using a cell site simulator before citing a non-disclosure agreement, to which Judge Williams replied, “You don't have a non-disclosure agreement with the court.”
The most recent email provided in response to the records request, dated December 2, 2014, contains the subject line “Security Markets & Systems: Samsung Techwin sold to Hanwha Group, Advancements in iris recognition technology, more” and appears to be a newsletter from SecurityInfoWatch.com, which describes itself as “a newsletter for security dealers and system integrators.” The email (screenshot below) contains an advertisement for truVision surveillance technology and links to news articles with titles such as “Why biometrics should be a 'non-contact' sport” and “ACLU joins Md. federal case over cellphone tracking,” underscoring the Massachusetts State Police's broad interest in spy technology.
But perhaps the most telling portion of the responsive documents are the two letters sent to others who have previously filed requests with the Massachusetts State Police for records pertaining to cell site simulators. The first, a portion of which is copied below, was sent on June 18, 2014 to an attorney from the ACLU of Massachusetts and denies that the State Police utilize cell site simulators.
The second letter, on the other hand, contains an interesting concession enshrined in legalese (see below). Sent on October 8, 2014 to the same attorney from the ACLU of Massachusetts, the letter does not outright reject the notion that the Massachusetts State Police use cell site simulators.
To a keen observer who has kept track of the various non-disclosure agreements and other methods by which the use of Stingrays has been kept from public view nationwide, the documents and emails, in aggregate, amount to an admission to the use of cell site simulators by the Massachusetts State Police, likely in conjunction with the U.S. Marshals Service.
It is important to note that the email sent by an employee of the Massachusetts State Police on October 19, 2014 – just 11 days following the second letter to the attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts – contains a reference to (emphasis added) “the Stingray,” a phrasing that appears to be more of a reference to a particular device rather than part of a discussion of the use of the equipment in general, which likely would have referred to “Stingrays” or “a Stingray.” And, perhaps above all, why would the Massachusetts State Police be so interested in the legal status of the use of Stingrays around the country if they weren't at least interested in using the spy gear themselves?
The documents can be read in full here.