Almost everyone uses a cell phone these days and we don’t just use them for calls, but for a wide variety of other purposes. As a result, they contain so much sensitive data that the Supreme Court has ruled that searches of cell phones require a warrant. One way police have gotten around this is through the use of cell site simulators that can mimick a cell tower so they can track the location, call history and website browser history of every phone in the area. Here’s what you should know about cell site simulator use in California.
What Are Cell Site Simulators?
A cell site simulator, also known as an IMSI-catcher or StingRay, is a device the size of a printer with a large antenna. It spoofs a cell phone tower signal so that cell phones will connect to it, providing a wealth of information, most importantly, a highly accurate location of a phone -much more accurate than they could get by subpoenaing a wireless carrier. This investigation technique also offers the benefit of cutting out the middleman wireless carrier altogether. The most popular model of these products is the StingRay sold by the Harris Corporation. It is so widely used that this is the most commonly-used term for IMSI-catchers.
While usually used to obtain location data, the technology in these devices can do a lot more, including seeing call history and browser history. Some StingRays may even be able to record someone’s calls or spoof messages or calls to and from their phones.
Do the San Diego Police use StingRays?
Yes. In fact, while only a small number of police departments in California own these devices, the SDPD has been using them since 2010. That was before the public was even made aware of the device’s existence thanks to the persistent detective work of an imprisoned hacker who was caught largely due to the use of an IMSI-catcher.
While it is in possession of models that have the ability to intercept conversations, the SDPD claims it limits its use of cell site simulators to only obtain location data. Originally, the department used these devices for a wide array of cases, but since California worked with the EFF to draft legislation requiring a warrant for their use, the department uses cell site simulators much less frequently.
Police Need a Warrant
The good news is that California law requires police to obtain a warrant before they use these devices. That means the police must disclose how they plan to use the StingRay and why. Because these devices collect so much data on innocent individuals, judges weigh the public interest of potentially apprehending a criminal with the right to privacy of the public. As such, they rarely issue warrants in cases that do not involve violent offenders that present a threat to the public and police must limit the data they collect from innocent people. In fact, all records not considered to be evidence cannot be stored or recorded.
That being said, because these devices and their usage are so secretive, police sometimes attempt to hide the fact that they used a cell site simulator at all. They do this by implementing something called parallel construction, which involves investigating a case in a legally questionable manner while following through with the properly prescribed method to cover up the wrong doing. Police have occasionally gotten caught doing this with StingRays after getting a warrant for data from the suspect’s wireless carrier. The fact that they were able to locate a suspect in a very specific area when traditional cell site data would not be so accurate often indicates an IMSI-catcher was used. Since the police can be secretive about what technology they used to acquire information about defendants, criminal defense lawyers often file motions ordering the prosecution to reveal the source of its information.
If you have been charged with a crime and believe police may have illegally used a cell site simulator to detect your location or spy on your conversations, please discuss this with your defense lawyer. You can schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss by calling (760) 643-4050.