A Lot More Than A Pen Register, And Less Than A Wiretap

Stephanie Pell
Christopher Soghoian
16 Yale J.L. & Tech. 134

In June 2013, through an unauthorized disclosure to the media by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the public learned that the NSA, since 2006, had been collecting nearly all domestic phone call detail records and other telephony metadata pursuant to a controversial, classified interpretation of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Prior to the Snowden disclosure, the existence of this intelligence program had been kept secret from the general public, though some members of Congress knew both of its existence and of the statutory interpretation the government was using to justify the bulk collection. Unfortunately, the classified nature of the Section 215 metadata program prevented them from alerting the public directly, so they were left to convey their criticisms of the program directly to certain federal agencies as part of a non-public oversight process. The efficacy of an oversight regime burdened by such strict secrecy is now the subject of justifiably intense debate. In the context of that debate, this Article examines a very different surveillance technology—one that has been used by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for more than two decades without invoking even the muted scrutiny Congress applied to the Section 215 metadata program. During that time, this technology has steadily and significantly expanded the government’s surveillance capabilities in a manner and to a degree to date largely unnoticed and unregulated. Indeed, it has never been explicitly authorized by Congress for law enforcement use. This technology, commonly called the StingRay, the most well-known brand name of a family of surveillance devices, enables the government, directly and in real-time, to intercept communications data and detailed location information of cellular phones—data that it would otherwise be unable to obtain without the assistance of a wireless carrier. Drawing from the lessons of the StingRay, this Article argues that if statutory authorities regulating law enforcement surveillance technologies and methods are to have any hope of keeping pace with technology, some formalized mechanism must be established through which complete, reliable and timely information about new government surveillance methods and technologies can be brought to the attention of Congress.