Stringrays, also known as “cell cite simulators,” behave like cell towers and fool phones into connecting to them, thus enabling officers to track owners’ motions with extreme precision. They have grown increasingly popular with local law enforcement, and have been used in at least 48 agencies across 20 states and the District of Columbia. They are also used by the FBI, DEA, NSA, and numerous other government agencies.
Florida’s records reveal extensive use in recent years—just one police department in Tallahassee used the devices 250 times between 2007 and 2014. The Miami-Dade PD used them in 59 closed cases between May 2013 and 2014—which is not counting any cases that may still be open.
Police departments are extremely secretive about their surveillance technology: officers often do not obtain court orders for Stingrays, and avoid mentioning their use to judges. The Stringray’s manufacturer, Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., requires buyers to sign non-disclosure agreements when they purchase the technology. “This entire program is shrouded in secrecy,” the Cato Institute’s Adam Bates told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “There are absolutely Fourth Amendment implications here especially from what we’ve seen with so few warrants being issued, and often when warrants are issued it’s not being fully explained to a judge.”
This has led to police occasionally having to drop cases based on information obtained through Stingrays, lest they be forced to reveal where they obtained their evidence in court.
Stingrays have been uncovered in multiple other states. Roughly the size of a suitcase, they are usually installed in a police vehicle so officers can drive around to targeted areas.
In Minnesota, journalists discovered that a version called the “KingFish” had secretly been used for years by the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. This prompted one Republican state lawmaker to introduce both a bill and an amendment to his state’s constitution strengthening electronic privacy protections.
And in Colorado, police requested to sweep vast areas with Stingray devices in the search for a kidnapped girl. Despite tracking the movements of all phones on the towers of numerous providers, this information did not contribute to solving the case.