The Federal Bureau of Investigation is notoriously secretive about its mobile phone tracking tools known as Stingrays. Now, new documents obtained by the ACLU show how the FBI keeps its surveillance gadgets shrouded in mystery: the FBI makes cops dismiss criminal cases if they threaten to reveal secrets about Stingrays.
The American Civil Liberties Union received an unredacted copy of a six-page non-disclosure agreement between the FBI and the Erie County Sheriff’s Department, once a court ordered that the ACLU had a right to request the information.
The agreement explicitly outlines the many steps local law enforcement needs to take in order to have permission to use the Stingrays, which are made by the Harris Corporation. Here’s the directive to stop prosecuting to protect the technology:
“In addition, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office will, at the request of the FBI, seek dismissal of the case in lieu of using or providing or allowing others to use or provide any information concerning the Harris Corporation wireless collection equipment/technology, its associated software, operating manuals, and any related documentation”
The agreement hamstrings local law enforcement to a point where it has to ask the FBI permission to reveal anything related to Stingray use.
Think about this: While insisting that the bad guys will win if anyone finds out anything about a powerful surveillance tool, the FBI is willing to let other criminals walk free to avoid having to reveal its secrets.
And that isn’t the only disturbing thing revealed by the records. They show that Erie County only obtained a court order to use Stingrays once, even though there were 47 documented uses.
The FBI’s tight-lipped party line has been, over and over again, that releasing any information about Stingrays will help the bad guys. That’s what FBI Director James Comey said when he finally addressed Stingrays, and that’s the line trickling down to local enforcement using the devices. Look at the original FOIA denial from Erie County to the ACLU, which rejected the request on the basis that it would jeopardise criminal investigations and “could if disclosed endanger the life and safety of a person.”
A judge ruled that this “but the bad guys will win and someone could DIE if we tell you” denial failed to follow the law.
This code of silence is far too broad. Of course, the FBI and local law enforcement should not be made to reveal specific deployments of surveillance tech in ongoing investigations. But none of the information that has come out of the disclosures about Stingrays has rendered the technology less effective. What these public disclosures have done is show how law enforcement has tried to minimise any oversight about the use of these powerful devices, oversight that is set up to protect privacy rights. Nobody wants the FBI to be impotent. But letting the FBI operate with impunity is another matter. [Motherboard via ACLU]