The FBI has been using their own cell phone towers as an aid in solving crimes for more than fifteen years. These data collection devices, called Stingrays, allow them to collect data from cell phone towers without having to rely on the cell phone companies to provide it for them, which can also save valuable time in the investigation process as well. Local law enforcement agencies use this technology also but the device’s cost (around $240,000) keeps it from being a mainstream investigation tool by every law enforcement agency. Questions have been raised regarding whether this practice is an invasion of the public’s privacy, and a threat to our security as a whole, but Stingray only collects call locations, not call information or text messages, so it is not considered wiretapping.
Here’s how the Stingray works: it collects data in a very similar fashion to a “cell tower dump”. This is the term used when law enforcement officials ask for all of the phone numbers and the names of people associated with those numbers who used signal from a particular cell tower in a specified amount of time. This investigation tool is one that was used recently in the case of Jessica Ridgeway, and can be used to narrow down a list of possible suspects in a case and separates them from people with no possible connection to a case. All data is collected, whether it’s from smartphones, laptops, desktops, and tablets, and sorted through until all data is either deemed not relevant to the investigation or a possible suspect or two can be placed in the area of the crime scene at the specified time. To get an idea of how widespread this investigation tool is, data from well over one million wireless service customers was given to law enforcement at their request in the year 2011.
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