We already know that local law enforcement has had access to controversial cellphone surveillance tech, known as stingrays. So do military and federal investigation agencies like the National Security Agency and FBI. The devices mimic cell towers, trick nearby phones into connecting, and then monitor calls and other data. It’s an invasive technology that privacy advocates say has already been deployed too widely. Now the Guardian has published evidence that the Internal Revenue Service bought some stingrays, too. So, yeah, apparently everyone just has them.
The Guardian used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documentation that shows that the IRS bought at least one stingray from Harris Corp.—one of only two stingray makers—between 2009 and 2012. It’s unclear why the agency bought the devices, but they could have been for its criminal investigation division, which sometimes does investigations (related to things like money laundering or the drug trade) with full-time law enforcement agencies. The criminal investigation division would have the ability to get the necessary approvals to operate stingrays.
Mark Matthews, formerly deputy commissioner for services and enforcement at the IRS and now of the law firm Caplin and Drysdale, told the Guardian that he had not heard about the agency using stingrays. “[It] could be as silly as [they] got to the end of the year, had some extra funds, and somebody said, ‘We need some more of these devices,’ ” he said. “But … it could be that they’ve decided to use them in cases where they’re the primary detective agency, and we haven’t seen it yet in the private sector.”
In September, the Department of Justice said it would require its agencies to obtain warrants before using stingrays. Though the decision still offers some loopholes to law enforcement, it showed that ongoing discussion about stingrays has made it more difficult to use them in secret. There may be the beginning of a trend toward transparency on the topic. But you didn’t think it would happen overnight, did you? Best to talk about your tax evasion strategies over smoke signal for now.