For years, in almost complete secrecy, cops and feds in the United States—and elsewhere—have been using powerful devices called Stingrays, cell site simulators, or IMSI catchers to track and spy on cell phones.
Over the last few years, and only after long legal fights and several public documents requests, we've learned a little bit more about IMSI catchers, including some of the agencies that use them. Yet we've rarely seen them. Some official pictures have been published online, mostly mined from patent applications, but we've practically never seen them in the wild until now.
Here's a picture of a stack of IMSI catchers, which trick phones into connecting to them by pretending to be a cell tower, sitting on what is likely the seat of a police car or van.
"That's consistent with what we know about how these devices are typically used," Nate Wessler, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Motherboard after seeing the leaked picture. "They're put inside a police vehicle and to anyone on the outside there would be no indication that the police are driving around with a powerful surveillance device."
Critics argue that IMSI catchers are very invasive, since they force every cell phone in their vicinity, not just the targeted one, to connect to the tracking devices.
The picture, unfortunately, is low resolution, but you can clearly see that at least three of the four stacked devices are the Harpoon model made by Harris Corp.. The only other picture of an Harpoon was published in 2013 by Ars Technica.
The Harpoon, according to a brochure from 2008 published by Ars Technica in 2013, is an amplifier that "maximizes" the capability of the Stingray II and "significantly improves the performance of the single-channel Stingray and KingFish systems," which are other Harris surveillance products.
Another leaked picture shows what appears to be the back of the device, along with its identification number issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and a barcode that says the device is property of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment as the "FDLE does not discuss investigative techniques." Harris also declined several requests for comment.
A former Harris employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the pictures look real, and told Motherboard that each Harpoon device in it is likely used as a different module for different functionalities, such as intercepting different bands. But it's all one and the same system, according to the source.
According to a manual leaked along with the picture of the Harpoon, and first published by The Intercept in September, the Harpoon can be used along other Harris products.
Harris, which sells most of these spy gizmos to cops around the United States, has fought to keep details of its technology secret, making customers sign strict non-disclosure agreements. The FBI even barred local cops from disclosing any information about the devices, and there have been a few cases where prosecutors preferred to drop charges rather than face the possibility of disclosing that the authorities had used Stingrays or similar products in their investigation.
Privacy and anti-surveillance advocates such as Wessler and his colleagues at the ACLU have long fought to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding these devices. They also fought the government, demanding that police get a warrant before using these devices, something that has usually not been a requirement until recently.
"It shouldn't take a leak [...] to just see a picture of this device in action."
The picture was part of a cache of documents purportedly from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), and leaked to Motherboard. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that the FDLE had spent $3 million on IMSI catchers since 2008.
If it is indeed the FDLE's device, the new leaked picture shines a little bit of light on how cops actually use these devices on the streets of America. For that reason, Wessler applauded the leak, but also complained that police departments and the FBI should be more transparent.
"It shouldn't take a leak," he said, "to just see a picture of this device in action."
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