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Meet the Contractors Turning America's Police Into a Paramilitary Force

You should know about them because they may already know about you.

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If you've heard of Harris at all, it's likely been because its controversial Stingray product has been getting attention as an information-gathering tool with major privacy implications. The Stingray allows law enforcement to cast a kilometers' wide digital net over an area to determine the location of a single cell phone signal – and in the process collect cell data on potentially hundreds of people who aren't suspected of any crimes. EFF claims the device is a modern version of British soldiers canvassing the pre-Revolutionary colonies, searching people's homes without probable cause – exactly what the Fourth Amendment was created to prevent. EFF describes the process this way:

“A Stingray works by masquerading as a cell phone tower—to which your mobile phone sends signals to every 7 to 15 seconds whether you are on a call or not— and tricks your phone into connecting to it. As a result, the government can figure out who, when and to where you are calling, the precise location of every device within the range, and with some devices, even capture the content of your conversations.”

According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the FBI has been using similar technology since 1995. But a recent federal case, United States v. Rigmaiden, has raised Fourth Amendment questions regarding whether law enforcement officials need to obtain a warrant before employing a Stingray. The judge in that case determined that the government hadn't provided enough information about how the devices work, and ordered that the information collected in Rigmaiden couldn't be used in court.

What's especially troubling about Stingrays is that the government either won't say, or doesn't understand, how the technology works. The WSJ reported that the US Attorney making the requests “seemed to have trouble explaining the technology.”

And it's not just the federal government that uses Stingrays. As Slate notes, referencing FOIA documents recently obtained by EPIC, “the feds have procedures in place for loaning electronic surveillance devices (like the Stingray) to state police. This suggests the technology may have been used in cases across the United States, in line with a  stellar investigation by LA Weekly last year, which reported that state cops in California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona had obtained Stingrays.”

Harris has been tightlipped about the Rigmaiden case, but expect to be hearing a lot about Stingrays in the future.

BI2 Technologies

BI2 makes a fine pitch. Its iris-scanning technology can be made to sound very appealing. Iris scans are relatively non-invasive, there's no touching involved so the likelihood of spreading disease is reduced, and as B12 states on its Web site, "there are no lasers, strong lights or any kind of harmful beams.” It also claims that iris scanning is "strictly opt-in," and that a “user" (who in most cases would be better described as an “arrestee”) “must consciously elect to participate” in the scanning. (When I was arrested by the NYPD while covering a protest, the scan was voluntary -- though the NYPD didn't tell me that, a protester did. But if I refused to submit to it I could have been punished with an extra night in jail.)

Reuters reported that BI2's iPhone-based iris scanner -- called MORIS -- is capable of taking an accurate scan from four feet away, “potentially without the person being aware of it.” MORIS has drawn harsh condemnation from the ACLU. The primary concern from privacy advocates is that law enforcement will deploy this technology in an overly broad way. ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley told Reuters that he didn't want the police “using them routinely on the general public, collecting biometric information on innocent people.”

 
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