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Caught in the Phone Tracker Upsell

Oct 27, 2016 | by Nation Inside team

A law enforcement agency not everyone will be familiar with, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), has been getting familiar with your phone.

A  law enforcement agency not everyone will be familiar with, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), has been getting familiar with your phone. Add it to the list of NC authorities deploying an expensive crime fighting device called the StingRay. In technical terms, the StingRay is a “cell site simulator” or  an “International Mobile Subscriber Identity” catcher.” By pretending to be a cell carrier, it pulls geolocation information and other data from in-range cell phones without owners knowing. In more practical terms, it conducts broad, warrantless  and nonconsensual virtual searches, something like an electronic version of stop-and-frisk.

Currently, the StingRay dominates the cell tracker market . The company that sells it, the Harris Corporation, took in  $5.1 billion in revenue last year. According to the results of a public records request filed by Nation Inside, the SBI (which functions as a scaled down, localized version of the FBI) is a customer, and has been for years. All said and done, that’s been deeply beneficial to Harris, which has been busily selling the obscure government office pricey upgrades.

As justice movements call for greater police accountability, StingRays and other tracking technologies fall under greater and greater scrutiny. They infringe on civil liberties as part of an increasingly opaque and privacy crushing surveillance state that indulges in everything from drones to facial recognition. “This is the future of policing in America, and it should terrify you as much as it terrifies me,” writes media justice activist Malkia Amala Cyril.

And there’s another reason, beyond preserving our basic rights , cell phone trackers are a bad policy: law enforcement agencies like the SBI can end up spending way too much on them and falling prey to the upsell.

A sales technique in which reps convince customers to buy reasonably priced, basic versions of an item or service, only to keep offering them more expensive, deluxe versions and constant improvements, fixes, and add-ons isn’t illegal, but viewed by some as unscrupulous.

Given non-disclosure agreements, it’s tough to know exactly how aggressively Harris markets its products, but it’s apparent it keeps in regular contact with its customer base. “Leveraging the latest technologies, listening and responding to customers’ needs and constantly seeking ways to improve is just who we are,” says their About page.

Records turned over to Nation Inside show the SBI had been using StingRay since at least 2010, at which point Harris must have suggested purchasing a vital upgrade.

“We currently do not have the capability to track cellular phones that operate on the Nextel system,” one NC Department of Justice functionary warned colleagues in a February 2010 email.  “We would like to request $60,000 in drug tax funds to be transferred to law enforcement equipment for the purchase of this upgrade.” (Drug tax funds are raised by NC sales taxes imposed on illegal substances like marijuana. These charges are often levied at defendants after arrest, in addition to burdensome fines, bonds and court fees.)

The problem, apparently, was iDEN, a cell phone communications technology brought to bear by NEXTEL in 1996.The Integrated Digital Enhanced Network gave NEXTEL customers the ability to work their phones like two-way radios. Already associated with the drug trade because of widely available prepaid “burner” phones, Nextel was unwittingly defeating the technology behind the StingRay. Luckily, Harris could provide a way out, its “iDen Interrogator” upgrade.

“Many of the suspects that we encounter are utilizing the Nextel phones,” one SBI supervisor complained in an email to the NC Department of Justice. “This requires us to have to request the Secret Service to assist us with their equipment.” The embarrassment of having to go to the feds could be avoided with the upgrade, he explained. And Harris had even promised to throw in one of its latest innovations, to boot, a low profile Amberjack antenna that could be attached to a car hood to boost the StingRay signal.

While emails show the upgrade was ultimately approved, the SBI might’ve skipped it. The same year the SBI upgraded, NEXTEL began shutting iDEN down, the network and its towers became  45,000 tons of very high tech junk .

But it didn’t end there. In 2013, the SBI would upgrade its StingRay system once again, this time to the tune of $330,000, according to a purchase receipt. Combined with the $60,000 upgrade from 2010, and the $130,000 it might have cost to make the initial purchase of the device, the SBI is at least half a million in the hole for a device few citizens are likely to want around.