A Friday report from The Intercept claims that the recent planes and helicopters flying over Black Lives Matter protests are likely linked to a joint effort between the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Justice to “covertly spy” on protesters.
“Both the DEA and the Marshals possess airplanes outfitted with so-called stingrays or dirtboxes: powerful technologies capable of tracking mobile phones or, depending on how they’re configured, collecting data and communications from mobile phones in bulk,” the report read.
According to the publication, stingrays are controversial for their ability to collect data on all phones in their proximity. Such information is allegedly used to identify and track the movements of people are their associates. In addition, the devices can reportedly download spyware onto cellphones, although the publication claims its unsure if American law enforcement has used them for such a purpose.
“The versions of stingrays used by the military can intercept the contents of mobile communications — text messages, email, and voice calls — and decrypt some types of this mobile communication. The military also uses a jamming or denial-of-service feature that prevents adversaries from detonating bombs with a mobile phone.”
According to The Intercept, stingrays — which were first publicly mentioned in 1994 — are controversial for the lack of transparency around their use. The public has allegedly been unable to obtain information about the exact nature of law enforcement’s use of the devices and the extent of their capabilities. According to such agencies, this secrecy is to prevent criminals from undermining the power of the technology.
As of now, lawmakers have yet to pass legislation that makes it illegal to use a stingray without a warrant. Currently, the Department of Justice has a policy that requires a probable cause search warrant for stingray use. But as The Intercept noted, the policy is not law, and it does not apply to local and state agencies when working separately from the federal government.
Another piece from The Intercept noted the recent BlueLeaks archive, which covers internal police data leaked onto the internet. The report in particular points to documents suggested that mask use amid the coronavirus pandemic is making surveillance — in particular, facial recognition — more difficult.
Per Vox, Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), warned of the repercussions of allowing police departments to maintain secrecy around their surveillance technology. He stressed the importance of public oversight and claimed that when such departments are “left to their own devices,” they can make “deeply wrong” decisions.