Stingray Technology and the Fourth Amendment



while the use of a spine can lead to the solution of a crime, it must still be used in full compliance with the Fourth Amendment and the Privacy Laws.

We work according to a professional code of a private investigator who acknowledges the law and appreciates its Fourth Amendment values. Technology has jumped rapidly over the past decade, often without public awareness about the new methods available to law enforcement. An example of this is the so-called “Stingray”, a semi-portable device which, by imitating the actions of a mobile device, enables the interception of signals from mobile phones and other wireless devices. This listening technology for cellular communication (to use its official name) makes it possible to locate the location of a particular mobile phone. However, all data that would go through a mobile phone go through the spike, which means that the device gives its users the opportunity to listen to conversations.

This may sound as if the type of interception measures have been used for decades by law, but there is a difference: the spike breaks every signal in the area, not just the suspicious police. It is true that the police have no interest in all these other conversations and do not undertake any efforts to listen to or record them. However, the fact remains that the mobile phones of the bystanders are the subject of sting bone monitoring.

These and other aspects of such a powerful monitoring technology have increased the eyebrows of data protection officers. (The ACLU submitted an Amicus letter the first time that Stingray’s constitutionality was brought to court.) The greater the capabilities of the technology, the greater the threat to privacy: while a spike can lead to a crime , in full compliance with the Fourth Amendments and Privacy Laws.

The State of California has set up a series of laws which are applicable to spine bones, the existence of which has been kept secret in the first years in which they were in use. These requirements should ensure that the public is informed about the presence and use of the technology. A law of 2015 stipulates that law enforcement agencies announce the intention to acquire a spike in public meetings and that information about the use of the device is published online.

A recent Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that at least nine California law enforcement agencies (including the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff) have a spinal cord injury, and they all try to comply with state laws. However, only two agencies have held public meetings before acquiring the technology, and the information on the use of online retrieval technology for cellular communication are not uniform.

To the merit of the LAPD, I was able to find the information about the technology on their website quite simply. The posting consists of a special order signed by the Polizeichef in February 2017, stating that “This technology must be used in accordance with the requirements of the Constitution and all applicable legal authorities.” This is implemented by the need to obtain both a search warrant and the permission of the commanding officer of the Chief Criminal Division to deploy a holdup.

Most of the online document is dedicated to the procedure to be followed when applying for a search warrant. While this is useful in the context of an order for the internal department, it does not meet the public’s right to be informed about how the LAPD uses the technology. The posted order also implies that spikes are only used to locate a person via a mobile phone. The other abilities of the equipment are not mentioned. Even if they are not employed by the LAPD, the public should be made aware of the fact that the police department has a device that allows the mobile phones to be heard by spectators.

The technological advances for law enforcement agencies as well as for private investigators have been tremendous over the past decade, as new and more powerful devices have been on the market. With these new opportunities for investigation and monitoring comes responsibility. We do not live in dystopia, in which the Big Brother is watching; nothing could be less American. Devices such as the stingers can provide law enforcement authorities with priceless information about a suspect; they still need to be used with circumspection and understanding for the letter and spirit of the Fourth Amendment. In conjunction with the privacy awareness that all Americans have guaranteed through the Constitution, advanced surveillance technology can provide the Americans with the kind of protection they are designed for.

Stingrays are not available to private detectives or to the public, even if the available monitoring devices become more and more sophisticated. At John A. DeMarr PI, we appreciate the value of new technologies, but we are also committed to its legal and ethical use. We work according to a professional code of a private investigator who acknowledges the law and appreciates its Fourth Amendment values.


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