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Stingrays used to track petty crime

Baltimore revealed that it's used stingrays 4300 times, and now we know most of that is on the level of check forgery and phone theft.


According to court records, on 11 May 2009, Baltimore detectives were in the 1000 block of Webb Court when they saw a man standing in a doorway using a mobile phone that they knew was stolen.

They arrested the man.

Your brain should be screeching to a halt at this point, clamoring for answers to questions like this – how would police just so happen to be in the exact right address at the exact time when a stolen phone is being used?

For that matter, how could they tell from a distance whether a given phone is stolen or not without getting their hands on it first?

If you’ve been following the ultra-secret use of stingray surveillance devices by US law enforcement, you already know the answer.

And now, thanks to an in-depth investigation by USA Today that focused on the use of stingrays in the city of Baltimore, we also know of at least several hundred cases in which stingrays – devices that spoof cell phone towers and trick phones into connecting with them, only to track and locate those phones – have been used to intercept calls and text messages.

StingRay is the brand name of an International Mobile Subscriber Identity locator, also known as an IMSI catcher, that’s targeted and sold to law enforcement.

The term stingray has also come into use in the US as a generic term for these devices.

They cost around $400,000 (about £253,800). The powerful, pricey gadgets are capable of tracking down serious criminals.

But as USA Today’s investigation revealed, Baltimore police are more often than not using the technology to investigate petty crime – think tracking stolen phones and people who forge checks.

Stingray use has been shrouded in secrecy, reinforced by bureaucracy – with documents obtained by the Guardian and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealing that the FBI has forced police departments to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to conceal from judges how they find information obtained by this metadata-capturing technology.

Oddly enough, the FBI recently said that local cops can talk about stingray use, which is the opposite of what its NDA states. At any rate, the US Department of Justice, which oversees the FBI, announced in May that it would be reviewing its stingray policies.

In court, the use of these devices is rarely disclosed because of those NDAs. Defense attorneys and even prosecutors rarely find out that the police use the technology.

The devices are a concern to civil liberties advocates because they scoop up phone information indiscriminately, able as they are to intercept hundreds of phones in surveillance dragnets, the majority of which belong to people innocent of whatever crimes the police happen to be investigating.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, are also targeting the Stingray program in a broader bill called the GPS Act that would require law enforcement agents to obtain warrants before tracking Americans’ locations with stingrays or tapping into cellphones, laptops, or GPS navigation systems.

What little we know about stingray use by law enforcement has leaked out in a handful of cases – for example, various police departments have, at various times, revealed that the technology has been used 250 times in Tallahassee, Florida, and 150 times in Tacoma, Washington.

But Baltimore seems to be stingray-crazy. In April, a detective testified in a court case that police had used a stingray 4300 times.

The enormous number surprised people who follow use of this surveillance technology, and USA Today decided to investigate just what type of cases this has entailed.

Baltimore gave the newspaper a surveillance log that was stripped of identifying information. Sometimes police noted that they used “directional finding equipment,” or that the phone was “located” at a particular address.

Or, again, that they were looking for a phone, saw a guy holding it on a specific street, and knew he was their suspect.

USA Today was able to cross-reference such vague notes with court documents to come up with a list of cases in which the surveillance technology was used.

Even public defenders in the city have been astounded to see the list of cases involved, USA Today’s Brad Heath said in a podcast, given how routine the crimes are and because they’ve had no idea the technology was being used to track their clients.

They're often going after small crimes and not too frequently [those investigations are] resulting in an arrest.

The director of the FBI has said that stingrays are important: it's how they catch pedophiles, terrorists, and kidnappers. But what's clear in Baltimore is it's not a tool saved for special occasions. It's really used for routine police work.

It’s incredibly common, but it’s incredibly secret – an atypical use of an investigative tool, Heath said. Take, for example, police informants: police will, at least, testify that they had help from an informant, even if they don’t reveal his or her identity.

But as one officer told the newspaper, when these cases get to court, the police and prosecutors “try to pretend we were never there.”

The law on whether this is OK is an unsettled area, due in large part to the technology having been kept so secret for so long.

Stay tuned – as facts continue to surface, that will likely change.

Image of Stingray courtesy of


I love the extra radiation exposure from stingrays. Funny how the lie it was the sun for so long, turned out to be old satellites and now cell towers causing so much cancer. But phones are more important than life, and the medical industry needs clients.


“for example, various police departments have, at various times, revealed that the technology has been used 250 times in Tallahassee, Florida, and 150 times in Tacoma, Washington.

“But Baltimore seems to be stingray-crazy. In April, a detective testified in a court case that police had used a stingray 4300 times.”

Well, sure. For a device that costs $400,000, you have to amortize the cost over a lot of arrests to get to a reasonable cost per perp. Baltimore has gotten this down to less than a quite reasonable $100 per recovered cellphone. How do you think the citizens or city administrators in Tacoma would react if they knew that the cost there to recover a stolen cellphone was almost $2700? It would probably trigger an investigation into wasteful police spending.


Laurence your missing the point. this was a tool intended to catch terrorist or assassins. At what point do we give up our right to privacy? is it to catch a terrorist? most would say that’s fine. is it to catch a petty thief that stole some woman’s purse? i insist that my privacy is probably worth more than the average woman’s purse. I have nothing to hide, but with the state of the world and corruption in police departments, our privacy is worth more than ever and is being stripped away at an alarming rate.

but what do i know, i’m just one man.


I’m not too concerned with terrorists and assassins; I’ve not seen a single one of either around here in over seventeen years. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen one of either in nearly 71 years, and none have affected me personally. Therefore, targeting terrorists and assassins seems a waste of my taxes.

I would be much more appreciative of their service, and respect LEOs more, if they would use whatever tools/techniques/subterfuge available to catch the guy who burglarized my house, taking thousands of dollars worth of this, that, and the other, losses for which I was NOT reimbursed by insurance. Who has receipts for camera gear they bought from a friend or for SCUBA gear bought through a newspaper ad? No one, that’s who. The most exasperating part is that they KNOW who did it, and they know where some of the items stolen are. So they take action? They do not.

I’d also appreciate LE arresting the guy who stole a motorcycle (again, not covered by insurance). They know who did it, where he lives, and where he likely stashed the bike. Do they care? No, they do not.

Recovering stolen property and jailing the thief puts no money in the coffers; arrests for failing to wear a seat belt or rolling through a red light do. DUI/DWI arrests support a whole “industry” designed to extract the maximum amount of money from the greatest number of people for the longest possible time. The whole idea of arresting, incarcerating, and fining people for something that might have happened, but didn’t, is ridiculous.

“To Protect and Serve” became “To Observe and Collect” many, many years ago.

@ Kyle: Your privacy is worth absolutely nothing and of no concern whatsoever if you are the dirtbag who stole from me, nor is that of anyone who benefited from your crime.


Except that it wasn’t designed or sold to track down stolen items. Its purpose is to prevent and prosecute real crime – terrorism, human trafficking, etc.

Saying that they spent $X to recover a stolen item is like saying that, because you only took your new off-road capable vehicle “mudding” once, you paid $30,000 for that one mudding trip. No, because that wasn’t the reason for the purchase of the vehicle.


Actually, I think you can argue that cops using a Stingray (how can they cost more than, say $20,000, by the way?) specifically to watch out for stolen phones while on patrol is an almost perfect use of the resource…certainly a lot fairer than random “stop-and-search”, and likely to lead both to prosecution and good information about related criminality.

At any rate, you *could* use a Stingray to keep a watch for stolen phones without violating anyone’s privacy – you don’t even need to listen in to the call – as long as you throw away any data you collect that is unrelated to stolen property soon after you’ve acquired it. That’s a bit like using ANPR (number plate recognition) cameras to identify likelydriving offenders while you’re on patrol, but discarding unused data when you finish your shift, which is what some jurisdictions do.

OTOH, I can’t see how you can use a Stingray for anti-terrorist intelligence gathering *without* treading on lots of people’s privacy.

In other words, it seems very naive to suggest that it’s OK to use a Stingray to collect surveillance data provided that you have grand motives, such as maybe, just maybe, catching a terrorist…yet it’s somehow unacceptable to use the same technology for “petty” purposes such as identifying, arresting, questioning and prosecuting 1000s of people *actually caught in possession of stolen property*.

As a final point, referring to the business of stolen phones as “petty crime” is rather insensitive to anyone who’s ever had their phone removed from their person at knifepoint or gunpoint.

Just saying.


It’s pretty hard to make a successful argument for trading or encroaching upon a right of personal freedom/security for improved criminal prosecution statistics. Using “it could be worse” is just offering a lesser of two evils gambit.

It is much easier to make such an argument when using hypothetical “preventing harm to innocents” and “good stewardship/rule-following” statements.

So, exactly what is your argument Mr. Ducklin? I found the above hard to render.


My argument is this.

It is perfectly possible to use Stingrays to identify stolen phones *without infringing your personal freedom*, and to use that information for arrests, prosecutions, and convictions, as well as to make a genuine dent in real-world criminality.

On the other hand, I can’t see how it is possible to use Stingrays to gather intelligence about the potential threat of terrorism *without infringing your privacy*.

Therefore I find it surprising that someone would oppose the former (using a crime-fighting tool to fight real crime in real time) while apparently supporting the latter (by saying that Stingrays should “only be used for serious stuff, like spotting possible terrorists”).

By all means oppose Stingrays altogether for any purpose. (I think that is where I stand, for the same reason I don’t much like ANPR – namely that different agencies collect and keep the data of innocent bystanders for wildly different lengths of time.)

But please don’t say that because Stingrays are supposedly about catching serious criminals there is no way to use them effectively – and with sensitivity for privacy – to keep a lookout for stolen phones while you are on patrol.

I think I would prefer a world in which Stingrays were programmed for one and only one task – to alert a patrol cop if and only if a known-stolen phone was detected in the vicinity – to a world in which Stingrays were used in unspecified ways to listen in to arbitrary calls on non-stolen phones in the hope that one day, someone might overhear a serious crime being planned….wouldn’t you?

(Identifying stolen phones when they are actually in use is not just about “criminal prosecution statistics,” after all. It’s about also about identfying, investigating and disrupting criminality.)


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