A Charlotte, North Carolina, judge has single-handedly sparked the release of surveillance applications involving the use of secretive cell-site simulators known as stingrays. To date, it’s the most substantial set of surveillance applications—specifically “trap and trace device” orders, a cousin of the “pen register”—to become available.
Senior Resident Judge Richard Boner told Ars on Monday that he’s no privacy absolutist, and he shouldn’t get credit. The way Boner sees it, he simply signed off on a common sense compromise between journalists and police.
“The Charlotte Observer has been pursuing this, and I met them two weeks ago with the editors and the reporters,” Boner said. “They asked how they would be able to see the orders that had been entered and I said, ‘file a motion and I will get police and district attorney to have their say and see if they had any objection for keeping them sealed.’ As it turned out, the attorney for the Observer got together with the police attorney and they reached an agreement, so the records for cases that are now closed could be released and would not jeopardize prosecution. They agreed on the form—it wasn’t necessarily a matter of me ordering to release the records.”
Security through obscurity
While stingrays do target specific phones, they also sweep up cell data of innocents near by who have no idea that such collection is taking place. Authorities have been notoriously tight-lipped about how such devices are acquired and implemented. Former federal magistrate judge Brian Owsley (now a law professor at Indiana Tech) has been unsuccessful in his efforts to unseal similar orders despite familiarity with the legal system. And just last week, prosecutors in a Baltimore robbery case even dropped key evidence that stemmed from stingray use rather than fully disclose how the device was used.
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