What Is StingRay, The Creepy Device Chicago Police "Used To Spy" On Eric Garner Protesters?

Last week, activists protesting the Eric Garner decision in Chicago noticed something funny going on with their cell phones. Those same activists are now accusing the Chicago police of using a StingRay device, a controversial surveillance and tracking technology that monitors cell phone calls. Widely used by law enforcement across the country, the technology has been heavily criticized as a violation of privacy, and the alleged eavesdropping on protesters has led to a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department. So what exactly is this technology that turns local police into the NSA?

On Dec. 4, when demonstrators were protesting against the grand jury's decision not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, some activists noticed a suspicious vehicle driving through the scene. Protesters took photos of a Office of Emergency Management and Communications SUV that appeared to be equipped with cell site simulators, known more commonly as StingRays.

In October, the CPD admitted that they'd purchased the cell-phone-spying devices in 2008, leading local activist Freddy Martinez to file a lawsuit against the police department demanding for more transparency on how the technology is used. Martinez's attorney, Matt Topic, told CBS Chicago in October:

In other words, the tech allows law enforcement to bypass obtaining a search warrant to secure cell records. What exactly is this shady-sounding technology and how has it gotten into the hands of so many officers?

What Is StingRay?

The StingRay is an IMSI-catcher, a sophisticated, portable cell phone surveillance device developed by the Harris Corporation. Though "StingRay" has become the generic name for the device, it's also been manufactured as the Triggerfish, IMSI Catcher, Cell-site Simulator, and Digital Analyzer. The StingRay was originally developed for military and intelligence community for anti-terrorism purposes, but has since been widely adopted by local law enforcement in routine criminal investigations, in which many non-suspects end up getting monitored.

How Does It Work?

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StingRays mimic wireless carrier cell towers and force cell phones in the area to connect to their devices rather than the actual cell towers. Cell phones are then tricked into sending the devices their data, such as text messages, emails, and location. The devices can be mounted in vehicles, airplanes, drones, and carried by hand. As of now, law enforcement has not developed a way to target specific suspects, so everyone within range of the device will be inadvertently spied on.

Why They're Controversial

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Rights organizations like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argue that the StingRay raises serious concerns over Fourth Amendment violations. In an article titled "StingRays: The Biggest Technological Threat to Cell Phone Privacy You Didn't Know About," the EFF called the StingRay device an "unconstitutional, all you can eat data buffet." The organization points out that the nontransparent way the tech is used is exactly why the Fourth Amendment was written.

In September, the ACLU, which has created a map of where StingRays are used, obtained a redacted copy of a nondisclosure agreement that the FBI requires local police departments to sign before using the technology. In short, the federal agency forces local law enforcement to shroud its usage of StingRays in secrecy.

Images: Seth Anderson/Flickr, Getty Images (2)