How cops turn your phone into a tracking device

Your cell phone might help you get around — but it can also turn on you to point out your location to the police, warns Nathan Freed Wessler, a legal expert for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project.

With the help of stingrays, a brand name of IMSI catchers that is often used generally to refer to the devices, law enforcement agencies can slyly uncover the location and other pertinent information of any nearby person's cellphone, regardless of whether they're the intended target. And their presence is silently growing — the ALCU estimates that at least 66 state and local agencies in 24 states and D.C. along with over a dozen federal agencies possess stingray tech, but the tally could very well be higher.

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"The stingray masquerades as a cell phone tower, forcing phones to broadcast their unique identifying information," Wessler explained, "Even when police are looking for a particular suspect, stingrays sweep in information from many bystanders' phones, conducting a dragnet search."

If that wasn't bad enough, they can also inadvertently jam your phone and cause calls to drop. But the real danger of stingrays comes from the lack of accountability many agencies have when using them.

"Police have intentionally concealed information about stingray use from the public, lawmakers, and even judges. They've even failed to get the required search warrants before operating the technology," Wessler said.

Without constant pressure to place checks and balance on stingray use, Wessler noted, the U.S. may be headed down a road we can't easily turn back from.

"Otherwise, by the time we learn how much we're being spied on, it might be too late," he said.

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