The FBI is now using built-in WiFi hotspots in cars to track people as new technologies give the surveillance state more avenues for hunting people down and monitoring their movements.
The technology, which is actually almost two decades old, is called Stingray. It was recently used to find a man in Wisconsin who was wanted on drugs and weapons charges. The technology used to find that man simulates a cell phone tower and is able to trick a mobile phone into giving away its position.
The controversial piece of high-tech equipment also works on now-common vehicular hotspots, which use the same towers as mobile phones to connect people to the internet.
Forbes reported that without a way to track, or “ping,” the Wisconsin man’s mobile phone in the May investigative case, the FBI applied for a warrant to track the onboard WiFi inside of a vehicle he was believed to be driving.
“The FBI had already been given permission to use other kinds of surveillance to locate another vehicle, a ‘black Jeep,’ associated with the suspect, according to the warrant application,” the outlet reported. “Again, they were surveillance techniques traditionally used to track cellphones, the first being a pen register, which gets data from a cellphone provider to monitor connections made by the device to other phones or electronic devices.”
“The second was a so-called ‘ping warrant,’ which shows the locations of cell towers used by a device. That gave them the location of a car dealership, where they learned the suspect had traded in the Jeep for the Dodge, the FBI wrote in its application,” Forbes added.
The bureau went with the Stingray device that had been approved for use in its warrant application.
The FBI, when applying to use the technology, noted that a vehicle such as the one its suspect was believed to be driving, was likely to be equipped with “cellular modems.”
“These cellular modems are assigned a unique cellular identifier and generate historical and prospective records similar to a traditional cellular phone,” the bureau said.
“These records can assist law enforcement in identifying the location of the vehicle including patterns of travel 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 within their vehicles,” the FBI added.
“A check of open source information from AT&T identifies the 2021 Dodge Durango Hellcat as a vehicle that has a built-in WiFi hotspot that is serviced by AT&T.”
In the Wisconsin case, the controversial technology located the vehicle federal agents were seeking in a garage, and the man was apprehended.
Forbes noted that the use of Stingray technology is controversial because it can use data from devices of people who are not under criminal investigation.
In fact, a disclaimer for such warrants such as the one in Wisconsin warns: “The investigative device may interrupt cellular service of phones or other cellular devices within its immediate vicinity. Any service disruption to nontarget devices will be brief and temporary, and all operations will attempt to limit the interference with such devices.”
Popular Mechanics reported the devices are used all across the country, and it isn’t known how many agencies own them. The fact that they are being used to now ping vehicles gives potentially unaccountable government agents another way to track the movements of Americans.
“Departments around the country cite terrorism to justify the grant money and the licensing of the equipment but ultimately use the devices for nonterrorism purposes,” the libertarian think tank said in a 2017 evaluation of Stingray technology.
“The complete lack of transparency regarding government use of [Stingray] guarantees that bad actors are not being held accountable and that guidelines, where they exist at all, are not always being followed,” the group added.
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