Over the past 12-18 months, there’s been an increased level of scrutiny applied to the various ways local, state, and federal law enforcement officials track and monitor the lives of ordinary citizens. One tool that’s come under increasing fire is the so-called stingray — a fake cell phone tower that law enforcement officials deploy to track a suspect, often without a warrant or any other formal approval.
A stingray is a false cell phone tower that can force phones in a geographical area to connect to it. Once these devices connect, the stingray can be used to either hone in on the target’s location or, with some models, actually eavesdrop on conversations, text messages, and web browser activity. It’s not clear how much the police cooperate with the cell phone carriers on this — in at least some cases, the police have gone to carriers with requests for information, while in others they seem to have taken a brute-force approach, dumping the data of every single user on a given tower and then sorting it to find the parties they’re interested in tracking. Stingrays can be used to force the phone to give up its user details, making it fairly easy for the police to match devices and account holders.