How Far Can Authorities Take Civil Surveillance?

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We’ve written before about government tracking of citizens’ mobile phone through devices such as the Stingray. The Anaheim, California Police Department has revealed that it has taken this a step further. The Department uses surveillance devices called Dirtboxes, which are essentially plane mounted Stingrays, and regularly flies them over the Southern California city. Anaheim is home to Disneyland and hosts millions of tourists each year.

The Anaheim Police Department has owned the Dirtbox since at least 2009, and the Stingray since 2011, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

“This cell phone spying program—which potentially affects the privacy of everyone from Orange County’s 3 million residents to the 16 million people who visit Disneyland every year—shows the dangers of allowing law enforcement to secretly acquire surveillance technology,” wrote Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties policy attorney for ACLU-NC.

Four years after purchasing the Dirtbox in 2009, the Police Department upgraded to a newer model, presumably capable of intercepting the more modern LTE mobile technology.

Stingrays, Dirtboxes, and other similar devices, work by impersonating mobile phone towers. Nearby mobile devices connect to them, in the process revealing unique ID numbers and locations. They emit a far stronger signal than regular towers to ensure devices connect to them, and can cause service disruptions in the process.

The devices are generally setup to allow the transmission of calls to emergency services on to regular towers. However, we can only speculate as to how many emergency calls to non-emergency numbers were intercepted and blocked by these devices.

These devices of course have legitimate uses in terms of investigations into crimes and for terror prevention. Mass service disruptions and unwarranted, warrantless surveillance, however, needs to have a strong checks and balances system behind it.