How Military-Grade Spy Gear is Winding Up on American Streets

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Spy gear like StingRays have been used for years by U.S. military intelligence analysts, so how did they get in the hands of local police across the nation?
Spy gear like StingRays have been used for years by U.S. military intelligence analysts, so how did they get in the hands of local police across the nation?

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a bombshell report exposing a little-known Department of Justice (DOJ) program that scoops up data from thousands of cellphones en masse through devices attached to airplanes and other light aircraft.

The devices, known as “dirtboxes” (from the acronym DRT, or Digital Receiver Technology), acts as a fake cellphone tower that, when deployed, forces all phones within a given radius to connect to it instead of a legitimate tower. According to the Journal, the DOJ deploys dirtboxes via aircraft; in doing so, the devices force hundreds — possibly thousands — of cellphones to connect to it, allowing federal agents to gather and sort through a vast amount of digital data, including that which belongs to ordinary, innocent people.

The Journal report was not the first published report about the clandestine use of dirtboxes — privacy advocates and intelligence enthusiasts have been writing about the devices for at least a year now. But until now, the focus had largely been on how the U.S. military uses the surveillance tool to locate terror and drug suspects in foreign lands; the Journal report was the first to highlight how federal investigators are using a surveillance tool intended for military operations inside the United States against its own citizens.

For several months, TheBlot Magazine has been investigating the use of military-grade surveillance gear by domestic law enforcement investigators with regard to a clandestine spy tool known as a StingRay. Usually mounted inside a police vehicle, a StingRay acts similar in form and function to a dirtbox — when deployed, it forces all cellphones on a certain network to connect to it instead of a legitimate communications tower, allowing investigators to gather and sift through a large amount of electronic data. And like a dirtbox, it gathers that data irrespective of whose cellphone is being targeted, designed instead to collect everything in its path and leaving investigators to determine what data should be retained or deleted.

Schooled in surveillance

In June, TheBlot discovered that, like dirtboxes, StingRays had been used overseas by U.S. military intelligence analysts. According to learning material discovered online, the U.S. Navy has at least one course in which Naval intelligence analysts are briefed on the design and operation of StingRays in intelligence gathering operations. The classes are taught as part of a larger intelligence course offered as part of the Enlisted Information Dominance Warfare Specialist (EIDWS) program. According to the material, the EIDWS provides primary support to, and receives support from, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Central Security Services (CSS), whose highly classified intelligence-gathering programs were disclosed last year in classified documents leaked to journalists by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden (Wikipedia image)
Edward Snowden (Wikipedia image)

According to the course material, Naval intelligence analysts who work closely with NSA agents are also briefed on surveillance tools that bear code names such as KingFish, Harpoon and AmberJack. Like StingRays, those devices are manufactured and sold by the Harris Corporation of Melbourne, Fla. — and like StingRays, those devices have been acquired by local, state and federal law enforcement officials in routine criminal matters.

TheBlot filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the U.S. Navy seeking additional resources on the EIDWS program. Naval officials have not returned multiple inquiries from the Navy’s FOIA officer with regard to the request; TheBlot is choosing to publish the information about the program now because efforts to fulfill the request appear to have stalled.

The Navy is not the only military branch to use Harris surveillance equipment: According to documents obtained by TheBlot, Army intelligence specialist have also used StingRay and KingFish spy gear for much of the past decade. According to one official government notice, the Army awarded a contract to the Harris Corporation in early 2009 for the procurement of cellphone surveillance equipment. Intelligence analysts enlisted by the U.S. Marines also familiarize themselves with Harris-sold surveillance equipment, including the StingRay, KingFish, Harpoon and AmberJack equipment and software, as part of a course offered through the Marines’ Intelligence Training Enhancement Program.

All three military branches continue to use surveillance equipment manufactured by Harris to this day as part of their foreign intelligence gathering efforts, according to one government official who spoke to TheBlot on background.

On the local level

sting rayLocal law enforcement’s acquisition and deployment of battleground surveillance equipment used by the U.S. military can prove problematic for privacy advocates who seek information on when and how police deploy cellphone spy gear. Earlier this year, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department denied a records request by TheBlot by citing, among other things, federal statues that preclude the disclosure of military equipment protected by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and the United States Munitions List (the sheriff’s department later admitted to using cellphone surveillance equipment).

The debate over the use of battleground equipment by domestic law enforcement isn’t limited to surveillance gear: For the past three months, an ongoing national conversation has taken place with respect to the use of military surplus equipment donated by the Pentagon to local and state law enforcement agencies.

The use of military-grade tactical equipment was on full display when officers with the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department, and later the St. Louis County Police Department, responded to civil protests following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in August. Police deployed flash bangs and pepper spray against protesters after several nights of violent rioting and looting following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr.  In some cases, force was used against demonstrators who were peacefully gathered on city streets and sidewalks, triggering accusations of law enforcement overreach.

It was later learned that the Ferguson Police Department, like many others across the country, had obtained the equipment under the federal 1033 program. The program, enacted in 1992, initially sought to arm police officers with military surplus equipment in order to combat drug crimes; however, the program has been expanded significantly over the past two decades to include donations of airplanes, helicopters, grenade launchers and armored vehicles capable of withstanding explosive devices.

Outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that the program had increased its distribution of military equipment to local law enforcement because police were routinely called upon to help with homeland security investigations. “But displays of force in response to mostly peaceful demonstrations can be counterproductive,” Holder said, reacting to the use of military equipment against protesters in Ferguson. “It makes sense to take a look at whether military-style equipment is being acquired for the right purposes and whether there is proper training on when and how to deploy it.”

In late August, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered such a review. The review is being led by White House staff in coordination with several federal agencies and members of Congress. It is unclear when the results of the review will be made publicly available.

Read more: TheBlot’s continuing coverage on government surveillance 

Many questions remain

Data obtained by National Public Radio indicated that at least $180 million worth of communications equipment had been obtained by domestic law enforcement groups under the 1033 program. Speaking on background, an official told TheBlot that surveillance equipment would fall within the scope of such communications equipment; it is unclear if StingRays have ever been obtained by a law enforcement agency under the program.

Even if the president enacts significant restrictions to the 1033 program, it is unlikely it would have an immediate effect — or any effect at all — on how law enforcement obtain surveillance gear manufactured by Harris and others. Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, news organizations and other groups reveal police often use taxpayer-money approved by a city manager or council to purchase the spy tools direct from Harris.

Despite the use of taxpayer money, little is known about when or how police use military-grade surveillance equipment. Federal, state and local law enforcement — and even Harris itself — combat public records requests by citing disclosure exemptions dealing with law enforcement techniques and military weapons, leaving the public in the dark about how police use — and potentially abuse — battleground equipment on city streets.

Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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