Circumventing Cell Towers and Constitutions

On Wednesday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) singled out StingRay scanners, stating that the committee is set to investigate these devices and their use in government surveillance. While mired in technical language, this is an issue of importance to all Americans.

A StingRay is a cell phone tracker that gathers data from a phone’s internal storage. When the StingRay is active, it acts almost as a fake cell tower and all phones in the vicinity will connect to it instead of their carrier’s cell tower, allowing critical data to be extracted from the phone—namely, location data. Furthermore, StingRays can disrupt calls and texts, including calls to any emergency services.

While StingRays may have a place in military operations, it is noteworthy that these devices are largely being used by law enforcement in the United States. The problem with their use in this context is that of warrantless data gathering, a violation not only of the Fourth Amendment, but of fundamental human rights. All too often, the StingRay operator will not know exactly which identifier belongs to their target, and the surveillance operations will be conducted on numerous devices, giving the operator access to a slew of identifying information on a great many cell phone users.

What’s more, StingRay use runs afoul of rules issued by the FCC that require cell tower operators to acquire spectrum licenses in order to be able to broadcast their signal at certain frequencies. This argument, originally set forth by law professor Laura Moy of Georgetown University, states that because StingRays act as fake cell towers and broadcast at these specific frequencies, those who wish to use StingRays must obtain the proper license.

License or no license, the use of StingRays to collect personal information without a warrant raises important questions about our constitutional rights. There have been a number of news stories just this year regarding weaknesses in cybersecurity (hacks, leaks, etc.) and it is plain that sensitive data is not always secure data. At times like this, we should search within ourselves to see if we are comfortable with these warrantless searches, which encroach upon the fundamental protections enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

If physical evidence was gathered in this warrantless manner, it would not be permissible in a court of law. The absurdity becomes even clearer if one thinks about law enforcement, without a warrant or consent, rifling through the personal belongings of 1,000 people in order to identify one person. Surely, many Americans would not be content with such an action. So why are so many so idle when this takes place in the digital realm?

Technology does not affect the validity of our rights. Whether our personal effects are physical or digital makes no difference with regards to how our privacy and our property should be respected.