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Last year the Wall Street Journal broke the story that the U.S. Marshals were using Stingrays to monitor thousands of mobile phones. Stingrays are planes equipped with devices that mimic cellphone towers and trick phones into revealing unique identifying information. This can be used to track the exact location of a suspect. These devices have been in use at least as far back as 2007.

The Justice Department insists that the U.S. Marshals are working in accordance with Federal law, and that all Stingray operations are approved by a judge, although the court orders approving the operations are sealed, and cannot be viewed by the general public. The Stingrays only track specific targets who are under investigation. If a phone is determined to not belong to the target the Stingray does not track it, according to a representative of the Justice Department.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation was less than satisfied with the amount of information that was released on the Stingrays and filed a FOIA request soon after the story broke. They were attempting to obtain a wide range of documents about the policies, procedures, and training materials relating to the operations, as well as documentation of each use of the planes. After months of waiting, the Justice Department has not provided them with any information relating to the FOIA request, and so the EFF has filed a lawsuit to attempt to force them to reveal the information.

The EFF reports that the Justice Department has intervened in a number of local cases to prevent any information about these devices or their use from being revealed. The Justice Department has used obfuscatory tactics, such as seizing records held by local law enforcement agencies and withholding information from judges and defendants. The EFF is hoping this lawsuit will bring some transparency to the Stingray operations, since the Justice Department and U.S. Marshals are being less than open about it. However the Justice Department has defended secrecy of the program as necessary to prevent criminal suspects and foreign powers from learning of America’s surveillance capabilities.

Do you feel that the Justice Department should be more open its use of the Stingrays, or is secrecy justified? Leave your comments below.


Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.