The smartphone has become a ubiquitous part of American life, to the extent that you may wonder how you ever got by without one. And increasingly, law enforcement is wondering the same thing – but for a different reason.
You may already know that your smartphone can be used as a tracking device. Whenever you are near to a cellphone tower your phone “bounces” a signal off of it, and the phone company keeps a record of that exchange. Police can use that data to locate where persons of interest and criminal suspects were in the vicinity of crimes, although some debate exists as to whether they need a warrant to access the information.
Still, the ability to use your smartphone as a pocket electronic bloodhound to track your movements has become such a useful tool for police that they are no longer content to only use cellphone towers. New technology allows police to mimic such towers, which allows for a more refined tracking ability. This technology uses devices referred to as “Stingrays,” and federal law enforcement agencies as well as police in at least 21 states – including Florida – have adopted them into use.
The difference between a cellphone tower and a Stingray is that the latter has no communication purpose. Its function is to “trick” your smartphone into thinking that a cellphone tower is nearby, resulting in the signal bounce exchange that the police can use. Because Stingrays are mobile, they can be used to provide a more exact position location than a cellphone tower alone. Law enforcement touts this increased location accuracy as being helpful in locating kidnapping victims as well as criminal suspects
Stingrays present a privacy concern because like a cellphone tower they do not discriminate when it comes to tracking smartphones. They act like a vacuum cleaner instead, gathering information on any mobile phone within range.
In response to this concern, the U.S. Department of Justice has issued guidelines that generally require federal users of Stingrays to obtain a warrant before obtaining information through them. Still, this warrant requirement is not absolute. It does not apply to Stingray use by state and local law enforcement (unless they are working in coordination with federal agencies), and even federal users of the technology can bypass the warrant requirement under “exigent” or “exceptional” circumstances.