The FBI assures lawmakers that they obtain warrants to use controversial cell-site simulators, otherwise known as stingrays—except when they don't, which is pretty much always, according to information obtained by Senators Leahy and Grassley.
In a letter from the Senators to the FBI, the elected officials express concern that
the FBI’s new policy requires FBI agents to obtain a search warrant whenever a cell-site simulator is used as part of a FBI investigation or operation, unless one of several exceptions apply, including (among others): (1) cases that pose an imminent danger to public safety, (2) cases that involve a fugitive, or (3) cases in which the technology is used in public places or other locations at which the FBI deems there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.
These devices trick nearby phones into sending information to the cops instead of to phone company cell phone towers. They can be used to track and find individual people, download lists of people attending protests, and wiretap phone conversations and data. The devices can traverse the walls of people's homes even if agents stand outside, in the public space the FBI describes. So most likely the FBI never gets warrants to use these devices.
Many police departments in the United States also use stingrays, though it's hard to find out which ones or how, because the FBI has told them to shut up about it.
This new information confirms our worst fears about the FBI's obsession with secrecy surrounding the powerful surveillance tools. The reason the FBI doesn't want cops talking about these devices is that they are being used without any judicial oversight or accountability, likely to target people for political purposes such as at rallies or marches a la Ferguson and Occupy Wall Street.
Back during the Occupy days, people said I was hysterical when I raised the issue of stingrays in relation to my phone's bizzare behavior at Boston's encampment in Dewey Square. Turns out my general assumption—to assume the worst about secretive government surveillance—holds true once more.