Government Fights for Use of Spy Tool That Spoofs Cell Towers

by KIM ZETTER, Wired.com  |  published on March 31, 2013

cell tower

The government’s use of a secret spy tool was on trial on Thursday in a showdown between an accused identity thief and more than a dozen federal lawyers and law enforcement agents who were fighting to ensure that evidence obtained via a location-tracking tool would be admissible in court.

At issue is whether law enforcement agents invaded Daniel David Rigmaiden’s privacy in 2008 when they used a so-called stingray to track his location through a Verizon Wireless air card that he used to connect his computer to the internet. Also at issue is whether a warrant the government obtained from a judge covered the use of the stingray and whether the government made it sufficiently clear to the judge how the technology it planned to use worked.

Over the course of a three-hour hearing in the U.S. District Court in Arizona, Rigmaiden, 31, asserted that the warrant the government obtained only authorized Verizon Wireless to provide agents with data about the air card but did not authorize agents to use the invasive stingray device. He also asserted that Verizon Wireless “reprogrammed” his air card to make it interact with the FBI’s stingray, something that he says was outside the bounds of the judge’s order.

Rigmaiden and civil liberties groups who have filed amicus briefs in the case also maintain that the government failed its duty to disclose to the judge who issued the warrant that the device they planned to use not only collected data from the target of an investigation but from anyone else in the vicinity who was using an air card or other wireless communication device.

Linda Lye, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told the judge on Thursday that this was the equivalent of rummaging through ten or twelve apartments to find the correct one where the defendant resided, something that would never be allowed under a normal warranted search.

By withholding information about the stingray from the judge and providing only “scant information” about the data they planned to collect, the FBI had “failed to live up to its duty of candor…. The government should have been clear about what information it wanted to obtain and what information it was going to obtain in using the technology,” she said.

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