Spying on the Bad Guys or Invading Your Privacy?

Posted at 7:40 PM, May 13, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-13 19:41:03-04

LANSING, Mich. (May 13, 2014) – It’s super-secret technology being used to spy on people in Michigan.

Now, some state lawmakers want to know exactly what one telecommunications company is able to track down about you.

The devices are some of the same technology the National Security Agency and military have used to track terrorists in warzones around the world.

They’re now being used by state police and sheriff’s departments, and that’s getting attention at the state capitol in Lansing.

Testimony in the House Oversight Committee Tuesday focused on a couple of super-secret devices known as `Hailstorm` and `Stingray’ and the little information that`s available about how they work.

The hearing was called by Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills).

The testimony revealed very few people know exactly what this technology is capable of.

“They can get location data,” said Christopher Soghoian, a senior policy analyst and principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “They can get information of incoming and outgoing calls. The devices – many of them that are sold on the international market – can be used intercept incoming and outgoing calls, incoming and outgoing text messages, data connections.”

And that’s just the beginning…

“They can be used to jam calls; they can be used to block calls to specific numbers, block calls from specific numbers,” said Soghoian. “They can be used to redirect calls, so you call your colleague and they redirect the call to the police.”

Many questions remain unanswered: What is the range of these devices? How much data is collected? How many people are vulnerable to the data collection? What happens to the data that`s collected from `innocent` people?

“You should be told what’s happening,” Soghoian said. “You should be told how this technology works; you should be told how it’s being used and the kinds of crimes it’s being used to investigate.”

The Oakland County Sheriff`s Office is one of about two dozen law enforcement agencies using the cellphone tracking technology in the U.S. and it`s the only agency doing so in Michigan.

The Detroit News first reported about the use of the `Hailstorm` device in Michigan.

`Hailstorm` and `Stingray` are products made by Harris Corp., a Florida-based telecommunications company that specializes in equipment used in government, defense and commercial sectors.

“Because this technology is being used by law enforcement, by government agencies, there has been a reluctance on the part of government agencies to have the discussion about protections from other parties that are intercepting calls,” said Soghoian.

In addition, police agencies aren`t allowed to talk about the technology because it would violate federal law and a non-disclosure agreement with Harris Corporation.

While Harris Corp. is the big player in the U.S., companies around the world make similar technology and compete with other manufacturers to get customers in defense and government sectors.

“There is a lot of information available online became the companies who make it are trying to sell their products,” said Soghoian.

Brian Owsley, a former U.S. magistrate judge for the southern district of Texas, told state lawmakers that from what he knows about the devices, they can collect and reveal some very sensitive information.

“The name, the mailing address, the social security number, the driver’s license number, how they pay for their cellphone service – whether it’s through bank, check or credit card,” said Owsley.

As this invasive technology trickles down from the federal government to state and local agencies, experts say it`s time to put rules in place to protect the majority of citizens who are not criminals.

“Our Founding Fathers, when they were creating the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they were very concerned about the British government going door-to-door with general warrants,” said Soghoian. “This technology is a general warrant.”