Wireless is Never Anonymous
authorities used a fake Verizon cellphone tower to zero in on a
suspect’s wireless card, and say they were perfectly within their rights
to do so, even without a warrant.
But the feds don’t seem to want that legal logic challenged in court
by the alleged identity thief they nabbed using the spoofing device,
known generically as a stingray. So the government is telling a court
for the first time that spoofing a legitimate wireless tower in order to
conduct surveillance could be considered a search under the Fourth
Amendment in this particular case, and that its use was legal, thanks to
a court order and warrant that investigators used to get similar
location data from Verizon’s own towers.
The government is likely using the argument to avoid a court showdown
that might reveal how stingrays work and open debate into the tool’s
Stingrays spoof a legitimate cellphone tower in order to trick nearby
cellphones and other wireless communication devices into connecting to
the tower, as they would to a real cellphone tower. When devices
connect, stingrays can see and record their unique ID numbers and
traffic data, as well as information that points to a device’s location.
To prevent detection by suspects, the stingray sends the data to a real
tower so that traffic continues to flow.
By gathering the wireless device’s signal strength from various
locations, authorities can pinpoint where the device is being used with
much more precision than they can get through data obtained from the
mobile network provider’s fixed tower location.
According to an affidavit submitted to the court
(.pdf) by the chief of the FBI’s Tracking Technology Unit, the stingray
is designed to capture only the equivalent of header information — such
as the phone or account number assigned to the aircard as well as
dialing, routing and address information involved in the communication.
As such, the government has maintained that the device is the equivalent
of devices designed to capture routing and header data on e-mail and
other internet communications, and therefore does not require a search
The device, however, doesn’t just capture information related to a
targeted phone. It captures data from “all wireless devices in the
immediate area of the FBI device that subscribe to a particular
provider” — including data of innocent people who are not the target of
the investigation, according to the affidavit. FBI policy requires
agents purge all data stored in the surveillance tool at the conclusion
of an operation, so that the FBI is not collecting “information about
individuals who are not the subject of criminal or national security
investigations,” the affidavit added.
The device in this case was used to track an aircard allegedly used
by Daniel David Rigmaiden, a 30-year-old self-described hacker suspected
of being the ringleader of an identity theft group that stole millions of dollars by filing bogus tax returns under the names and Social Security numbers of other people.
The thieves operated their scheme for at least three years from
January 2005 to April 2008, allegedly filing more than 1,900 fraudulent
tax returns involving about $4 million in refunds. The conspirators used
more than 175 different IP addresses around the U.S. to file the fake
According to court documents, authorities used a variety of other
avenues to track Rigmaiden, including obtaining video footage taken at a
Verizon payment kiosk in San Francisco. This presumably was to help
identify who had paid in person for an account belonging to a person
named Travis Rupard — one of the identities Rigmaiden allegedly used
during his crime spree.
Investigators used the stingray to trace the aircard to an apartment
complex in Santa Clara, California, according to the FBI affidavit.
Court documents indicate the device led investigators “to the general
proximity of defendant’s usage of the aircard,” allowing authorities to
narrow the air card’s location to three or four apartments in a
Rigmaiden has been in custody since May 2008 and is representing
himself at the U.S. District Court of Arizona, after dismissing multiple
attorneys. The government’s assertion about the spy tool comes in
response to a motion for discovery that Rigmaiden filed requesting, in
part, details of how authorities tracked him.
The government has so far refused to provide information about how
the device worked or the techniques they used to monitor the air card,
calling such “sensitive investigative techniques” privileged
Until now, the U.S. government has asserted that the use of stingray
devices does not violate Fourth Amendment rights, and Americans don’t
have a legitimate expectation of privacy for data sent from their mobile
phones and other wireless devices to a cell tower.
But authorities changed their tone in the Rigmaiden case after the
defendant argued that using the device to locate a wireless aircard
inside an apartment constituted a search, and therefore required a valid
search warrant, which he asserts authorities didn’t have.
After the judge indicated he’d seek more information about the
device, prosecutors conceded that in this case its use could be
considered a search. They also argued that its use was covered by a
court order and a warrant that authorities used to obtain near real-time
tracking information directly from Verizon Wireless. A separate
tracking warrant, prosecutors say, wasn’t necessary for its fake tower.
Despite the apparent shift in the government’s argument in this
specific case, it still maintains that stingray devices do not violate
American’s privacy, since the target doesn’t “have a reasonable
expectation of privacy in his general location or in the cell site
records he transmitted wirelessly to Verizon.”
The Metropolitan police in London have used similar technology which
takes the surveillance a bit further, according to a recent story in the
Guardian. The British device can be used to identify all mobile phones in a given area, capture and record the content of calls and remotely disable phones.
Photo: Keith Survell / Flickr
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