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ICE, Customs and Border Protection Face Lawsuit Over ‘Stingray’ Cell Phone Surveillance Tech

There is little known about the government’s use of “stingrays,” which tracks the locations of a cell phone and all devices within its range.

Two agencies within the Department of Homeland Security are facing a lawsuit over documents related to the government’s use of cell phone surveillance technology to track immigrants in the U.S.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit on Wednesday against Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, alleging that the agencies stonewalled them when asked to produce records relating to the government’s cell site simulators, known as “stingrays.”

Stingrays work by tricking cell phones into connecting them as if they were cell towers. The technology can capture unique identifiers and location data from not only the cell phone of the target, but of all devices that are within range of the targeted device. More advanced devices are believed to intercept calls and text messages in range of the targeted phone, TechCrunch reported.

There is little known about the government uses such surveillance technology because it is sold exclusively to law enforcement authorities and federal agencies. Those departments operate under strict non-disclosure agreements with the stingray manufacturers.

That’s why the ACLU has decided to file suit for records of how ICE and CBP use, purchase and conduct oversight of stingrays. While ICE claims that it has been processing the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act request for more than two years, the CBP says that they are unable to “locate or identify any responsive records.”

ACLU attorneys claim that the CBP’s response is “completely implausible” because a December 2016 report from the House of Representatives found that the two agencies had spent $13 million on purchasing and operating at least 92 cell-site simulators. This report indicates that there are records kept on how the agencies use stingrays, the lawyers argue.

“The public has a right to know if and how often ICE and CBP are using Stingrays, which were originally intended for use by the military and intelligence agencies, for civil immigration enforcement operations,” Alexia Ramirez and Bobby Hodgson, both of the ACLU, wrote in an announcement.

The group is also seeking to find out if the agencies notify people in immigration court proceedings about when a stingray is used against them and if any limits exist on the use of the surveillance. (Spokespeople for CBP and ICE either did not comment on the issue, or said they do not comment on pending litigation).

In filing the suit, the ACLU cited a Univision report alleging that ICE used stingrays to track down an undocumented immigrant in New York. The man is now serving a one-year prison sentence for re-entering the U.S. illegally and faces deportation in 2020.

“It is only with a better understanding of how Stingrays are being utilized within the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement operations that we help ensure people are being protected from unjustified surveillance and targeting,” Ramirez and Hodgson wrote.

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