HOW FAR WILL COPS GO TO HIDE STINGRAY USE?

I’ve written before about how police departments are using a device called a Stingray to track cell phones and perhaps intercept calls without a warrant. I say “perhaps” because police departments have been extremely secretive and have refused to disclose how these devices actually work.

One helpful way to determine the intrusiveness of a surveillance technology is to look at the lengths cops and government are willing to go to in order to keep using it. The more intrusive and sneaky the technology, the farther the cops and the government will go in order to protect themselves from public knowledge. Two recent articles detail just how far they are willing to go.

The justification for this kind of violation of people’s Fourth Amendment rights is usually one of the following:

  • But terrorism!
  • We only use it to catch really bad criminals, like serial killers!
  • The NSA does it anyway.

So just how widespread is the use of Stingrays? A USA Today article discusses how tpolice departments across the nation use Stingray devices in a wide range of criminal investigations, from check forging to kidnapping.

Prosecutors and police will even drop charges against kidnappers if they fear having to cough up details about Stingray cell trackers. We’re not talking about dropping some piddly trespassing charge, but dropping serious charges like kidnapping:

In 2010, police used a stingray to track a man they suspected had kidnapped his girlfriend’s two daughters, ages 3 and 5, and demanded half of her $6,000 tax refund as a ransom “in exchange for her older daughter’s life.” He threatened in text messages to throw the older daughter off a bridge if he didn’t get the money, according to court records. Detectives quickly recovered the children unharmed. Prosecutors quickly dropped the kidnapping charges against the man, Kwame Oseitutu; he was convicted only of misdemeanor misuse of a telephone. Prosecutors did not explain that decision.

The prosecutors would rather keep the public in the dark about how the police are routinely monitoring phone calls and tracking people’s location than convict this guy for kidnapping. That’s how far they’ll go.

Oh – and they’ll play the “but terrorism!” card too. Or make up imaginary informants. Or claim they don’t need a warrant if they use it “in public.”

The trend of the police to feel they can violate the Fourth Amendment with impunity is worrying, and is a symptom of the surveillance state the government started after 9/11. The government is basically using what’s called an “ends – means” justification: the ends (preventing crime / terrorism / bad dudes) justifies the means (flippantly violating the Constitution).

“But!” you say, “if I’m not doing anything wrong why should I worry?”

You should worry because every American commits three federal crimes every day, on average, without ever knowing it. Because ignorance of the law (“I had no idea mislabeling vegan spread as mayonnaise was a crime“) is literally no excuse. Because the government’s willingness to disregard a part of the Bill of Rights sends a very clear message about what it thinks about the whole thing.