How the Justice Department Keeps Its Cell Phone Snooping a Secret

Cell phones by Paul Martin Lester

In a move that has alarmed civil-liberties groups and transparency advocates, the Department of Justice has been working with local police departments across the country to squelch public-records requests on controversial cell-phone surveillance technology.

In December, USA Today reported that cell-phone surveillance technology originally designed for the US military was finding its way into state and local police departments across the country.

Since the USA Today report, public-records requests have unearthed documents showing state and local police departments in 15 states using so-called “International Mobile Subscriber Identity” (IMSI) catchers such as Stingray, Kingfish, Harpoon, Amberjack, and Hailstorm.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Hanni Fakhoury said that Stingrays act as a “man-in-the-middle” device, intercepting data by emulating a cell-phone tower. With the briefcase-size technology, police can identify and locate cell-phone users in a general area or search for a specific individual. It also vacuums up metadata from phones.

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