Alert readers will remember that we’ve written about these cell-phone “dragnet” devices before: boxes deployed by government agencies that mimic the activity of cellular relay towers, and interact with thousands of phones at a time recording information about which numbers are in contact.
The boxes don’t just react, either. They can induce dormant phones to activate and reveal recordable information. (More on that in a moment.)
In 2014, the U.S. Marshals Service swooped down on the police department of Sarasota, FL to prevent documents about the use of “Stingray” devices from falling into the hands of the ACLU, after ACLU made a FOIA request for the records.
At least 12 federal agencies are known to be among the minimum 56 government agencies in the U.S. that possess Stingray devices. The federal agencies include the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Special Operations Command, and NSA – prompting the obvious question whether these federal military agencies are using the devices to collect signals intelligence on U.S. persons. (Keep in mind: until 3 September 2015, or just 53 days ago, federal agencies could use Stingrays for collection without a warrant. The Secret Service still can.)
Now the Guardian reveals that the IRS bought Stingray equipment in 2009, and upgraded it in 2012.
Guardian reminds us of the rigorous secrecy being maintained about the use of Stingray equipment:
A Guardian report in April revealed a non-disclosure agreement that local police and prosecutors were forced to sign with the FBI before using Stingrays, which mandated them to withdraw or even drop cases rather than risk revealing their use, and in September it emerged that this withholding of “discovery” evidence by police in Baltimore could lead to as many as 2,000 cases being overturned.
Given the potential connection of Stingray use with the Baltimore riots (see the first link, at top), this is an especially interesting development.
But setting aside for the moment all the other disturbing possibilities that come with federal use of Stingray collectors, the question remains: what possible use could the IRS have for the devices?
The IRS isn’t chartered to do the kinds of investigative work that would involve the Stingray. In the absence of some murky change to federal law, the IRS is supposed to turn to the FBI for that kind of police-power, law-enforcement work.
Perhaps the popularity of online banking by cell phone has given the IRS an interest in having a particular kind of visibility on such transactions. The kind I mean is the sort of preemptive, or quick-reaction visibility that requires seeing transactions at the very second they occur, rather than waiting until the transactions can be viewed through the banks’ records – i.e., the traditional method for such investigations.
Why the IRS must be vested with the power to exercise this visibility is still the important question. The IRS has a very limited ability – and no charter – to do anything about these transactions at the point of occurrence. For its purposes – tax law administration – the traditional means of knowing about the transactions works just fine.
And the traditional means has the benefit of not sucking in the data of thousands, or maybe millions, of innocent people whose cell phone activity has nothing to do with some IRS investigation.
Bottom line: the IRS has no business whatsoever deploying dragnets to suck in the general public’s cell phone data.
We are left to suppose that the IRS has been egregiously exceeding its enforcement charter.
A note on the ability of cell phone collection boxes to activate our phones. During a drive through the Texas panhandle a few months ago, I was in a rural area on a state highway and had my cell phone powered off, not expecting to receive any important calls at the time. Just as I was entering a stretch of road where there was construction – and therefore needed all my attention on the wheel – I heard my phone giving the “turning on” chime.
There was no possibility of something applying pressure to the “on” button inadvertently. The phone is constructed so that that can’t happen. It was a few minutes before I could get to the phone to see what was going on. Before I could pull it out and look at it, I heard the “turning off” chime. That was, if anything, even odder, because the turn off procedure requires not just depressing the button, but giving the screen a swipe.
Something had turned my phone on and off, nevertheless. That had never happened before. I’m curious if others have experienced the same thing. I did see a low-flying small aircraft in the area, but it looked like a generic civil aviation plane, and I paid it little attention until I was thinking about the event afterward. (This was, incidentally, during the Jade Helm exercise, which was intended to have a specific focus on the use of “big data” as part of its theme of “mastering the human domain.” But I was a long way from where the exercise activity was supposed to be taking place.)
It’s questionable enough whether the ability to force the people’s cell phones to react is necessary for national defense. There is zero necessity for the IRS to have this ability in order to administer tax law.