The fight for a more libertarian society begins with the identification of policies that make us less free precisely because they are enacted by a centralized power. As we learn about these restrictive rules and programs, we also learn about how the federal government uses any tool at its disposal to ensure smaller, more local government organizations fall in line.
As expected, these smaller entities end up becoming effective arms of the federal government in its fight against personal freedoms, mostly due to the fact federal government agencies and regulatory bodies often have special influence over state agencies.
This is the case with surveillance policies.
In a December 2016 report released by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reforms, lawmakers confirmed that federal agencies give state and local law enforcement extra funding so they may purchase stingray devices.
The stingrays, as they are known, are cell site simulators that spoof cell phone towers, capturing data from devices within their range. As the phones targeted get tricked into connecting directly to the stingray, officials are able to primarily track and locate targeted devices. But depending on the technology in use, systems may be modified to also gather data from these phones such as text messages.
As these stingrays are used without a warrant, targeting any cell phone within range, the use of this technology is a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment. Still, feds provide the incentives that push local law enforcement to ignore the Constitution.
What’s worse is that you and I as taxpayers are paying the federal government to spy on us illegally.
According to the report, the bulk of funding for this program comes from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but the grant programs are administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA.)
Up until 2016, this program had officially cost taxpayers $1.8 million, but the real number could be much higher as the DHS “does not maintain a separate accounting of grant funds used to purchase cell site-simulators,” the report concludes.
If local or state officials want to participate and get the extra dough from the feds, they may obtain grants through a variety of programs such as the Citizen Corps Program, the State Homeland Security Program, the Emergency Management Performance Grants, the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program, the Urban Areas Security Initiative, the Transit Security Program, the Intercity Passenger Rail Program, and the Buffer Zone Protection Program.
Still, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has denied that it funds local stingray purchases, despite claiming there were a “handful of instances” where the DOJ knows grant money was used to purchase stingrays — not to our surprise. As it turns out, the Tenth Amendment reports, the congressional report does not go deep enough as state and local agencies that purchase stingrays often sign non-disclosure agreements with both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the company behind the device As such, both the feds and the companies that produce these towers end up shrouding the exchange in secrecy.
With clauses in place that guarantee law enforcement won’t make it clear that data or records obtained in a criminal investigation were gathered via stingray use, local law enforcement agencies have nothing to lose.
Due to the secrecy surrounding these programs, the public is left in the dark, completely oblivious that, perhaps, their local law enforcement bodies might be gathering their personal information even if they were never formally accused of any crime.
Despite being told that stingrays should not be authorized, the federal government still acts exactly as you would expect: It tells you to relax because the government has it all under control.
Unfortunately, this isn’t anywhere close to what the Founding Fathers envisioned, as any program that is used to violate our privacy should be under great scrutiny, especially as the data collected by local and state law enforcement is sent to state and local governments.