Strata Week: Court case sheds light on FBI stingray surveillance

Intrusiveness of FBI stingrays, IRS vs Fourth Amendment, Liquid Robotics' AWS of open seas, and Republicans want big data.

FBI and IRS push privacy envelope

Details about how the FBI uses stingray or IMSI-catcher technology — and how much more intrusive it is than previously known — have come to light in a tax fraud case against accused identity thief Daniel David Rigmaiden. Kim Zetter reports at Wired that the FBI, in coordination with Verizon Wireless, was able to track Rigmaiden’s location by reprogramming his air card to connect to the FBI’s fake cell tower, or stingray, when calls came to a landline controlled by the FBI. “The FBI calls, which contacted the air card silently in the background, operated as pings to force the air card into revealing its location,” Zetter explains.

The U.S. government claims it doesn’t need a warrant to use stingrays “because they don’t collect the content of phone calls and text messages and operate like pen-registers and trap-and-traces, collecting the equivalent of header information,” Zetter says, but in this particular case they got a probable-cause warrant because the stingray located and accessed the air card remotely through Rigmaiden’s apartment.

The issue at stake in this case is whether or not the court was fully informed as to the intrusiveness of the technology when it granted the warrant. Rigmaiden, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are arguing that “the government withheld crucial information from the magistrate — such as identifying that the tracking device they planned to use was a stingray and that its use involved intrusive measures,” Zetter reports, and as such, the warrant is not legitimate and information gathered via the stingray operation should be suppressed. EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury told Zetter, “This is more than just [saying to Verizon] give us some records that you have sitting on your server. This is reconfiguring and changing the characteristics of the [suspect's] property, without informing the judge what’s going on.”

The judge is expected to rule on the motion to suppress in the next few weeks. You can read more about the FBI’s use of the stingray, how it works, and how it’s been employed in the past in Zetter’s piece at Wired.

In related news, the IRS appears to be insisting it doesn’t need a warrant to search citizens’ email accounts, even after a federal appeals court ruled in 2010 that email privacy is covered under the Fourth Amendment. Declan McCullagh reports at CNET that the American Civil Liberties Union obtained internal documents describing the IRS’s policies and practices in relation to email and other electronic communication, as well as a copy of the IRS 2009 Search Warrant Handbook, which states: “emails and other transmissions generally lose their reasonable expectation of privacy and thus their Fourth Amendment protection once they have been sent from an individual’s computer.” McCullagh reports:

“The IRS continued to take the same position, the documents indicate, even after a federal appeals court ruled in the 2010 case U.S. v. Warshak that Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their e-mail. … A March 2011 update to the IRS manual, published four months after the Warshak decision, says that nothing has changed and that “investigators can obtain everything in an account except for unopened e-mail or voice mail stored with a provider for 180 days or less” without a warrant. An October 2011 memorandum (PDF) from IRS senior counsel William Spatz took a similar position.”

You can read McCullagh’s full report at CNET and more about the obtained documents from ACLU staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler in a post on the ACLU blog.

Liquid Robotics’ new Wave Glider aims to be AWS of the open ocean

Liquid Robotics unveiled its Wave Glider SV3 this week. Daniel Terdiman reports at CNET that the SV3 is “is essentially a self-powered sea-faring data center” that allows users to gather and analyze data from the world’s waterways. The SV3 carries sensors and onboard servers designed to serve a variety of industries, he says, from military to the oil industry to fisheries to coast guards. And its set-up is efficient. Terdiman writes:

“The SV3 was also designed with a data center-like architecture allowing multiple users to each have their own data gathering and crunching take place at the same time, all totally independent of the other. And because the computers are meant to be strong enough to do most of the processing locally, the new Wave Glider can send back conclusions via high-bandwidth, low-power connectivity rather than large amounts of raw data that must then be analyzed once they arrive.”

The company, Terdiman reports, hopes to make its Wave Glider SV3 the “Amazon Web Services — a floating server rack — of the open oceans.” You can read more at CNET.

Republicans are prepping a data strategy

The Republicans may be ready to concede they didn’t just get beat in the polls this last election, but on the data front as well. Lois Beckett reports at ProPublica that the Republican strategists are aiming “to match Barack Obama’s big data campaign tactics” and are reportedly in talks with data outfits such as Teradata, the data warehousing company behind Wal-Mart, Apple, and eBay.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) wouldn’t confirm or deny the reports, Beckett notes, and likely will remain mum until it has appointed a chief technology officer, which is expected by May 1. Beckett says regardless, the Republican strategists’ goal is clear:

“… a new, more open database that will make it easier for Republican candidates to share what they’re learning about voters — and for the party to share voter information with technology developers in order to build apps for use in coming campaigns.”

The RNC’s new chief of staff Mike Shields called the data battle against the Democrats “a space race,” Beckett reports, and said, “They put up Sputnik, but there’s no reason that we can’t put a man on the moon, and leave them behind.” Beckett notes that in addition to hiring in-house data analysts, the RNC intends to “make it easy for outside software developers to access the party’s national database” in order to “create a ‘vibrant marketplace’ of digital tools and applications that developers can sell to Republican candidates.” You can read Beckett’s full report at ProPublica.

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