Cell Site Simulator or Stingray – You are a Walking GPS

Stingray Cell Site Simulator

Cell Site Simulator or Stingray – You are a Walking GPS

A StingRay can be used to identify and track a phone or other compatible cellular data device even while the device is not engaged in a call or accessing data services. A Stingray closely resembles a portable cellphone tower. Typically, law enforcement officials place the Stingray in their vehicle with a compatible computer software. The Stingray acts as a cellular tower to send out signals to get the specific device to connect to it. Cell phones are programmed to connect with the cellular tower offering the best signal.  When the phone and Stingray connect, the computer system determines the strength of the signal and thus the distance to the device. Then, the vehicle moves to another location and sends out signals until it connects with the phone. When the signal strength is determined from enough locations, the computer system centralizes the phone and is able to find it.

Cell phones are programmed to constantly search for the strongest signal emitted from cell phone towers in the area. Over the course of the day, most cell phones connect and reconnect to multiple towers in an attempt to connect to the strongest, fastest, or closest signal. Because of the way they are designed, the signals that the Stingray emits are far stronger than those coming from surrounding towers. For this reason, all cell phones in the vicinity connect to the Stingray regardless of the cell phone owner’s knowledge. From there, the stingray is capable of locating the device, interfering with the device, and collecting personal data from the device.

Essentially, your mobile phone can be located even when it is not being used to make or receive a call.  The police and the FBI have been using this device for years to find and or track suspects and fugitives.  Under New York law a warrant signed by a Judge would be required prior to obtaining information from the Stingray.

In People vs. Gordon a Kings County attempted murder case the District Attorney applied for and was granted a warrant for a pen register/ trap and trace for Gordons cell phone.  In the application for that warrant the ADA also requested that law enforcement be allowed to use a cell site simulator to locate Gordon.  A pen register is a device that records all the phone numbers that the cell phone dials and receives calls from.  Theoretically, this is the same information that the cell phone user shares with his service provider (Sprint, AT&T, Verizon etc.) and would have a lower expectation of  privacy regarding that information.  His exact location is NOT something that he shares with his cell phone provider.  Based on cell towers the cell phone provider would know the general vicinity the mobile phone was in but not the exact location.  The cell site simulator or Stingray will indicate the cell phones precise location.

Gordon, charged with attempted murder, among other things, moved for suppression of fruits obtained through the use of a cell site simulator. After an unsuccessful search for Gordon officers petitioned for a pen register/trap and trace warrant for Gordon’s cell phone number. Prosecutors conceded they requested, and were granted, use of the simulator, resulting in Gordon’s location and arrest. The court noted it was improper under New York law to authorize obtaining information for a suspect’s phone other than numbers dialed or transmitted in outgoing and incoming calls. It has been held that use of tracking devices elevated the level of intrusiveness, and absent exigent circumstances, installation and use of a GPS to monitor an individual’s whereabouts constituted an illegal search absent a warrant establishing probable cause for its issuance. Thus, failure to obtain a proper eavesdropping warrant prejudiced Gordon as his location, and subsequent apprehension, was procured from the use of the simulator. Suppression of evidence obtained directly resulting from use of the simulator was granted.

The Stingray is used by law enforcement around the world.  It is especially used to track the whereabouts of suspected terrorists.  Do you think that the use of this device by law enforcement without a warrant should continue?  Leave a comment and let me know.

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