It was as if America had finally given up on privacy this week when Sen. Diane Feinstein called out the Obama administration and the CIA for allegedly spying by breaking into the computers of members of Congress, reportedly trying to find out who inside the CIA leaked information about torture to the politicians who are supposed to be in charge of keeping the spy agency reined in.
The assertion was mostly met with a shrug; it’s just another day in America.
It doesn’t help that Feinstein’s outrage comes a little late in the game. When the extent to which our government spies on us was revealed months ago, Feinstein was the congressional defender-in-chief. It’s not spying, she reasoned, it’s protecting America (Aside: Jon Stewart pretty much nails it on this point).
Each day since then has brought new revelations about the kind of country we actually live vs. the one we thought we lived in when it comes to government monitoring of our activities.
So it’s been difficult to become more shocked by details since those first few days after Edward Snowden talked to Glenn Greenwald.
But KQED in San Francisco has a good candidate today. It reports on the revelations by several news organizations about a new tool Bay Area police are using to snoop on people.
At least nine departments are using StingRay, which collects names, phone numbers, locations, call records and even text messages from nearby cellphones — all apparently without a warrant.
News10 in the Bay Area uncovered the use of the equipment there:
“StingRays are powerful surveillance tools capable of many different kinds of privacy invasions,” (ACLU of Norther California staff attorney Linda) Lye said. “StingRays operate by mimicking a cell tower and tricking all wireless devices on a particular network into communicating with the StingRay.”
Cellphones are constantly seeking the nearest tower, so every phone within a certain radius is tricked into connecting with the device, giving police real-time information from every phone within a certain radius of the device.
Police can use this data to pinpoint the location of a specific person by determining the direction and distance of the phone from the StingRay and other nearby cell towers. They can also determine the unique ID and telephone number of every connected phone, as well as the phone numbers dialed by a connected phone, including outgoing calls and texts.
“StingRays can determine a device’s location with remarkable precision, even pinpointing someone to a particular unit within an apartment building,” Lye said. “In other words, the government can use a StingRay to determine who is inside a private home and when.”
The equipment was originally intended as an anti-terrorism weapon, but now police are using it to help find suspects in routine crimes. Homeland Security authorities have pushed their technology down to local police departments, which don’t seem to have the same oversight — or alleged oversight — that federal agencies do.
But nobody seems to have any access to how the information is gathered and used because the company that makes the equipment — Harris — has a strict prohibition on local government and police talking about it.