In 1949, George Orwell wrote “1984” about a society where Big Brother monitored people 24/7. The year, 1984, came and went; computers were not in homes; no big screen TVs; no drones, and no cell phones. But it seems we have finally arrived some 31 years later.
Big Brother is not our concern now, but Stingray may be. It’s not a fish or a car—it’s a cellphone dragnet used by US government agencies to track those individuals or groups the agency’s fear may not be following the rules. The latest agency on board with Stingray, may very well be the IRS. Stingrays are an example of a device known as an IMSI-catcher—a cell-site simulator. The device pretends to be cellphone towers in order to strip metadata and sometimes content from phones that connect to them.
Although invoices have been redacted, it appears that the IRS made purchases between 2009 and 2012 from the Harris Corporation. They are one of any number of companies that manufacture the equipment. The release of the purchase information has privacy advocates foaming and saying that this “shows the wide proliferation of this very invasive surveillance technology.”
The redactions were meant to protect trade secrets and privileged information under section B(4) of the Freedom of Information Act. However, one of the invoices from 2012 reports that the IRS spent over $65K on upgrading a Stingray II to a HailStorm which is a more powerful version of the Stingray. The invoice also included a line item for training.
Although the devices are capable of powerful intrusion, their use can be permitted with a only a low-level court order called a PEN register to trap and trace a device—think wire-tapping.
The ACLU and a number of news outlets have been tracking this problem for some time and now count 13 Federal agencies, including the FBI, National Security Agency, and now the IRS, as having these devices. The devices are also used by state police and other local departments in at least 20 states. It is unknown how prevalent their use is in other agencies. The Guardian reported in April 2015 that local police and prosecutors were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI before using Stingrays, causing them to withdraw or in some instances, drop cases rather than acknowledge their use.
We don’t know how or why the IRS used the devices and the IRS is not coming clean—of course. It appears there are between 2,000 to 3,000 special agents in the IRS’s criminal investigation division who have the ability to get PEN register orders, but that doesn’t mean that they used Stingray, only that they have the authority to do so.
If all of this is true, it means the IRS is only getting more aggressive in their mission to bring down money launderers and other financial criminals. But that isn’t the problem—most of us would approve the technology’s use for that purpose. The question is can the IRS be trusted to use it only for legitimate purposes? They have already been caught targeting exempt organizations for political reasons so we have to wonder how far they might go with the Stingrays?
They are using invasive techniques that were not designed for tax men, but for the FBI and CIA. The majority of tax cases end in plea deals, so why the IRS has decided to be so aggressive, if they are, is beyond comprehension. Welcome to 1984—at last.
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