Newly released documents show federal agents using cellphone surveillance technology called some of their work “classified” even though Justice Department officials have said such methods are normal court-approved law enforcement, not spying or intelligence tactics, reports the Wall Street Journal. The "classified" designation suggests a mingling of law enforcement with national-security and espionage work—two areas usually kept distinct to protect Americans’ privacy. It raises fears about the secrecy surrounding a form of digital surveillance that has drawn criticism from civil-liberties groups. The documents were provided by the U.S. Marshals Service in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the American Civil Liberties Union. They show the Marshals Service paid more than $10 million from 2009 to 2014 to buy machines known as cell-site simulators, also called Stingrays or “dirtboxes,’’ that scan surrounding cellphones to hunt for suspects.
The devices act as fake cellphone towers, pulling in the identifying information of cellphones within range as they search for a suspect’s phone. The mechanism quickly disconnects from phones it isn’t seeking, but the process can briefly interrupt service for people whose phones are scanned. The Marshals developed the surveillance technology with help from the Central Intelligence Agency. The ACLU's Nathan Wessler said the government should provide more information for the sake of transparency. “The government has gone to great lengths to hide its surveillance activities from the public, thereby frustrating judicial oversight and democratic accountability,” he said. “It should not be this difficult to uncover basic facts about surveillance programs that should have been voluntarily revealed to courts and subjected to public scrutiny.”