U.S. Court Hands FBI’s ‘Stingray’ Major Setback

• Use of phony cell phone towers—designed to monitor criminals—ends up ensnaring honest citizens

By Victor Thorn

On April 1, privacy advocates won a major victory when United States District Judge David Campbell in Washington, D.C. ruled against a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) appeal for a delay in their “Stingray” cell phone surveillance case. Campbell determined that no “exceptional circumstances” existed to justify the FBI’s request for a two-year moratorium.

Although this lawsuit brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) didn’t create widespread headlines, it affects practically every person in the country who uses a cell phone.


Essentially, what the FBI did was set in place what are called Stingray tracking devices that impersonate actual cell phone towers. As such, anyone within reach of these fake towers will have their cell phones fooled into linking up to their intercepting technology because their phones believe they’re real towers.

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In a January 10 Slate.com article, Ryan Gallagher, a journalist specializing in national security and privacy issues, wrote, “Functioning as a so-called ‘cell-site simulator,’ Stingray is a sophisticated portable surveillance device. The equipment is designed to send out a powerful signal that covertly dupes phones within a specific area into hopping onto a fake network.”

Once information is gathered from a target, that individual’s movements can be tracked in real time anywhere he travels. Of course, the surveillance net also spreads to unwitting, innocent bystanders who end up caught in the operation simply because they drove or walked by one of the fake towers.

During the court hearings, other problems became apparent, such as the FBI’s insistence on not obtaining search warrants for Stingray. Also, FBI officials made these electronic surveillance devices available to state police units in at least four states.

The judge has ordered that the FBI has until August 1 to produce all non-classified documents related to Stingray for review by EPIC attorneys.

Victor Thorn

Victor Thorn is a hard-hitting researcher, journalist and author of over 40 books.