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Stingray spying: FBI’s secret deal with police hides phone dragnet from courts

The FBI is taking extraordinary and potentially unconstitutional measures to keep local and state police forces from exposing the use of so-called “Stingray” surveillance technology across the United States, according to documents obtained separately by the Guardian and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Multiple non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) revealed in Florida, New York and Maryland this week show federal authorities effectively binding local law enforcement from disclosing any information – even to judges – about the cellphone dragnet technology, its collection capabilities or its existence.

In an arrangement that shocked privacy advocates and local defense attorneys, the secret pact also mandates that police notify the FBI to push for the dismissal of cases if technical specifications of the devices are in danger of being revealed in court.

The agreement also contains a clause forcing law enforcement to notify the FBI if freedom of information requests are filed by members of the public or the media for such information, “in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels”.

The strikingly similar NDAs, taken together with documents connecting police to the technology’s manufacturer and federal approval guidelines obtained by the Guardian, suggest a state-by-state chain of secrecy surrounding widespread use of the sophisticated cellphone spying devices known best by the brand of one such device: the Stingray.“The device has the ability to pull content, so all the sudden your text messages are at risk, your phone calls are at risk, and your data transmission, potentially,” said John Sawicki, a former police officer who consults attorneys on technological evidence, of the Stingray device made by Harris Corporation. Photograph: Harris Corporation

Made by Florida-based Harris Corporation, the Stingray and similar devices are known as IMSI-catchers or cell-site simulators.

Often not much bigger than a suitcase, the devices are easily portable. They gather information by imitating cellphone towers, scooping up metadata from all devices that connect to the fake tower. Experts told the Guardian that the devices may also be capable of gathering content from phones that connect to them.

The secrecy required by such NDAs is perhaps why information on the use of Stingrays by local police forces remains scarce after years of probing by civil-liberties advocates – and why the true scale of the technology’s use is unknown. But other documents recently obtained by the Guardian and the ACLU hint at how widespread the practice might be.

The ACLU has shown that at least 48 agencies across 20 states likely use the devices. Documents obtained by the Guardian show police from states as such as Texas, Florida, Washington, Minnesota, Virginia, Florida, Maryland, Illinois,Arizona, and California utilize the devices.

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