The FBI is using controversial technology traditionally used to locate smartphones as a car tracking surveillance tool that spies on WiFi in vehicles.
Known as the Stingray or Cell Site Simulator, the tool masquerades as a cell tower in order to force all devices in a given area to connect to it. Agents can then choose the number they are interested in and locate the device. Normally, it would be a mobile phone, but a search warrant app discovered by Forbes shows that it can also be used to find vehicles, as long as they have Wi-Fi on board. This is because car Wi-Fi systems act like a phone, in that they connect to mobile networks to get their data. So it makes sense that the police would use it to find a car, although this appears to be the first recorded case.
The request to use the Stingray was filed by the FBI in Wisconsin in May, as it sought to locate a vehicle – a Dodge Durango Hellcat – which it said was being used by a man charged with drug trafficking and possession of firearms.
The FBI had previously been authorized to use other types of surveillance to locate another vehicle, a “black Jeep” associated with the suspect, according to the warrant request. Again, these were surveillance techniques traditionally used to track cell phones, the first being a pen register, which retrieves data from a cell phone provider to monitor connections made by the device with d ‘other telephones or electronic devices. The second was a so-called “ping warrant,” which indicates the location of cell phone towers used by a device. This gave them the location of a car dealership, where they learned the suspect had traded the Jeep for the Dodge, the FBI wrote in its request.
After that, the FBI decided to use the cell site simulator. Towards the end of the warrant request, a federal agent explained why, noting that cars like the Dodge were “frequently fitted with cellular modems inside their vehicles.” These cellular modems are assigned a unique cellular identifier and generate historical and potential records similar to a traditional cell phone.
“These recordings can help law enforcement identify the location of the vehicle, including travel patterns and areas where the subject may reside or frequent. Most Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) have partnered with AT&T or Verizon to provide cellular connectivity in their vehicles. An AT&T open source information check identifies the 2021 Dodge Durango Hellcat as a vehicle with a built-in WiFi hotspot that is served by AT&T.
The Stingray tool appears to have helped, with another government document showing that the warrant had been executed and the cell site simulator indicated that there was a “high probability” that the Dodge was inside. a garage.
The suspect in the case, Shaft A. Darby, has pleaded not guilty to the three counts he faces. Indicted in March, he was arrested in mid-July.
The stingrays have been controversial in the past because they suck data from all devices that connect to them, which means that information on the phones or cars of many innocent people will be sucked up. That’s why lawmakers have proposed legislation to impose warrants with probable cause before surveillance technology is deployed, and why warrant requests come with disclaimers like Wisconsin’s: “The device investigation may interrupt cellular service from phones or other cellular devices in its immediate vicinity. Any disruption in service to non-target devices will be brief and temporary, and all operations will attempt to limit interference with such devices. He also promises to delete the recorded data of non-suspects.
The case shows how cars are no longer just vehicles, but networks on wheels, and all of this data can be of use to government agencies. As Forbes recently reported, police can and have acquired location data from a car’s airbag system or brake light module. They have also previously requested location data from companies that have in-vehicle systems that track the GPS coordinates of millions of vehicles every day, including GM OnStar and fleet management providers Geotab and Spireon.
“A lot of people don’t realize that modern cars aren’t just wheels and an engine anymore, they’re also computers and cellphones,” says Nate Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project. “These features provide convenience and efficiency for drivers, but they also generate sensitive information about our journeys and activities. Strong privacy protections are important for this type of vehicle information, just as they are for the information generated by our cell phones and laptops. “