The rise of the cell phone ‘StingRay’

The one item an adult in 2015 never leaves home without is his or her cell phone. Pretty soon the same will be true for children as well.

But a controversial new surveillance technique brought to the public's attention has many concerned for their mobile privacy. Regardless, the unprecedented accuracy and effectiveness of this device – known as a StingRay – may mean it could be coming to a neighborhood near you very soon.

That is, if it's not there already.

"Critics argue warrantless StingRay use violates Fourth Amendment protections."

How the StingRay hunts
StingRays intercept cell signals like text messages or phone calls as a phone attempts to connect to a cell tower. The gleaned information can be used to track and locate people of interest in ongoing criminal investigations. Thankfully, police departments and other law enforcement agencies appear to be the only organizations StingRay sells to.

However, depending on the StingRay model, it may be able to perform a host of other tasks, including interrupting total cellular service through the immediate area, drawing metadata from specific cell phones and even draining the power of any phone caught under its supervision.

While this monitoring device can obviously shield itself from a target's suspicion, its implementation also eludes the attention of the cellular service provider operating the interrupted cell tower.

Prices for these machines could cost upwards of $100,000 for interested parties.

Problems and solutions (and more problems)
A larger picture complicates the obvious issues that devices like StingRays bring to an individual's right to privacy. While information suggests that this surveillance technology is popular among police officials, it appears as though law enforcement is hesitant to openly admit that StingRays may be in use.

In fact, as the Washington Post reports, even during criminal cases where police successfully apprehended potentially dangerous suspects using a StingRay, prosecutors would rather offer defendants plea bargains than disclose the technology's use. This is partly due to a gag order imposed by the FBI – apparently, knowledge of how this cellular surveillance system works detracts from its efficiency in the field.

Big Brother is watching... but he may also be phoning in.Big Brother is watching… but he may also be phoning in.

The American Civil Liberties Union discovered an interesting detail on how these devices operate after applying for public record requests in Florida – where police have reportedly used StingRay surveillance systems more than 1,800 times since 2007. Apparently, to say that this method "targets" suspects is a bit misleading. StingRays actually sift through cell signals as they come in, making some contact with every mobile phone regardless of who calls. Critics argue that because of this, warrantless use of StingRays violates Fourth Amendment protections.

To its credit, StingRay-like devices do have their place in the public sector. In the case of Florida's prolific StingRay use, many of the instances were related to locating people in possible distress, not necessarily criminal activity. How else can police and paramedics locate people who call 911 from a cell phone and get disconnected before they can provide an address? However, even in this narrow instance, much can be said for finding small ways to justify what some consider an egregious misstep in justice.

Fair warning
A phone in 2015 is so much more than just a way to check in with your worried mother. In the past decade, mobile technology has allowed people to carry their whole lives in their pockets, including valuable personal information like credit card information. Moreover, with the advent of the bring-your-own-device craze, that same level of immediate access could incorporate data from your office's servers.

Keeping your mobile device safe by installing the proper safeguards is smart. Staying informed as to the extent with which other people, even police officers, can tap into your phone is even smarter.

Security equipment and surveillance industry piece brought to you by Marlin Equipment Finance, leaders in security equipment financing. Marlin is a nationwide provider of equipment financing solutions supporting equipment suppliers and manufacturers in the security, food services, healthcare, information technology, office technology and telecommunications sectors.