DOJ emails reveal stingray surveillance misuse, leading to ‘accidental’ spying

stingrayHang on, we’re not talking about those kinds of stingrays. Though, considering some odd underwater tech activities recently, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible. No, the stingray we’re referring to is a device federal investigators have been quietly using to mimic the presence of a cell phone tower, allowing them to triangulate the precise location of particular cell phones and their users. The investigators, however, failed to mention that fact to courts that would require them to gain permission before doing so.

The stingray devices can be used not only to locate particular cell phones – with such precision that can reveal down to the exact room in a building – but also intercept conversations being held on the tracked devices. If this doesn’t already get your Big Brother paranoia going, it turns out the stingrays also sweep up user data of nearby cellphones in the process.

Stingrays are hardly new to law enforcement authorities, and have been used for years. What is particularly concerning about this discovery of stingray usage is the apparent lack of legal oversight. Traditionally, stingray usage required advance notice of the deployment so a judge can review the evidence and see whether such activity is warranted, and to ensure that privacy safeguards and standards are met. That, apparently, is not always the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union uncovered this activity as the result of a Freedom of Information Act search regarding a particular case involving the technology. In a blog post published earlier this week, ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye explained that a collection of emails received as part of the FOIA request revealed that “the federal government was routinely using stingray technology in the field, but failing to ‘make that explicit’ in its applications to the court to engage in electronic surveillance.”

It’s not only the ACLU that finds this disturbing, Lye continues. “When the magistrate judges in the Northern District of California finally found out what was happening, they expressed ‘collective concerns,’ according to the emails,” she wrote. Such concerns may have been expressed too late, however. Lye notes that the email chain that reveals the stingray use is dated May 2011, three years later than the suspected use in the case the ACLU is investigating. Or, in Lye’s words, “the government was not ‘forthright’ in its applications to federal magistrate judges for at least three years.”

In the legal defense the government has filed in the ACLU case, authorities claimed that the stingray’s use without proper oversight was simply a mistake made due to “a relatively new technology,” but the emails now released definitely suggest otherwise. How long have authorities been circumventing guidelines for surveillance within the U.S. – and, more worryingly, just how much information on those not officially under surveillance has been collected “by accident”?

Emerging Tech

Death from above? How we’re preparing for a future filled with weaponized drones

Drones are beginning to enable everything from search & rescue, to the delivery of medicines to hard-to-reach places. But they are also being used as cheap, and deadly flying bombs. How can we defend ourselves?
Computing

Apple CEO demands Bloomberg retract its Chinese surveillance story

Apple CEO Tim Cook is calling on Bloomberg to retract a story alleging that Apple had purchased compromised servers that allowed the Chinese government to spy on Apple. Apple's investigation found no truth to the story.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

Stay inside this summer with the best shows on Hulu, including 'Castle Rock'

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we've put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.
Wearables

Skydio’s self-flying drone now has an Apple Watch app for flight prep

Skydio's clever R1 autonomous drone now has its own Apple Watch app, making flight preparations simpler than ever. The $2,000 flying machine is now also selling at its first retail outlet — Apple Stores in North America.
Emerging Tech

Light-swallowing room promises Call of Duty fans the blackest of ops

What's it like to be in a room fully painted with the world's darkest material, Vantablack? The makers of one of the year's top video games teamed up with Vantablack scientists to find out.
Emerging Tech

Scientists created a condom that self-lubricates during sex. You’re welcome

Researchers from Boston University have invented a special coating for condoms which make them respond to bodily fluids by becoming more slippery. Here's how their new breakthrough works.
Emerging Tech

Are e-cigarettes safe? Here’s what the most recent science says

Ecigarettes are widely regarded and advertised as a healthier alternative to cigarettes for people who are trying to kick the smoking habit. How safe are these cigarette alternatives? We went deep into the recent scientific literature to…
Emerging Tech

You’re so vein: Palm-based biometric system could help confirm your identity

Move over, Face ID! The next biometric security systems could rely on analyzing the unique vein patterns in your palm print. Here are some of the ways the technology could prove useful.
Emerging Tech

For only $4,950, you can get jetpack lessons from the world’s only instructor

Have you ever dreamed of flying using a jetpack? JetPack Aviation founder -- and the world's only qualified jetpack teacher -- David Mayman is now offering a day of flight instruction.
Emerging Tech

Biologists have found a hormone that could make space farming possible

Researchers have shown how space farming may be possible. By encouraging plants to excrete a certain hormone, they’ve demonstrated that crops can thrive despite challenging conditions, such as low-nutrient soil and microgravity.
Emerging Tech

Keep your holiday gift list high tech and under budget with these gadgets

Modern technology doesn't always come cheap, but there plenty of premium devices that don't carry a premium price. Whether you're looking for a streaming device or a means of capturing photos from above, our list of the best tech under $50…
Emerging Tech

When tech goes wrong: Banksy’s shredder was meant to totally destroy his artwork

Banksy's recent auction stunt was meant to totally destroy one of his most famous pieces of work, but a fault with the shredder has left the buyer with something almost certainly worth far more than the $1 million she bid for it.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.