We’ve all seen the type of fast-paced, explosion-riddled action movie where the good guys (and the bad) use all kinds of high-tech devices to bring about the successful capture and resolution of their plan.

It’s just the sort of thing you would expect to see in a movie—alongside plenty of shots of the bad guy laughing at his dastardly deeds and the good guy standing at the edge of a cliff while bombs explode behind him and his face settles into a grim realization of what he must do to save humankind.

(Cue inspirational background music)

Now, picture this: a man is on the run from the police and he’s quite cunning, and the police are at their wit’s end trying to nab the fellow who committed some unspeakable crime (and maybe that man is running around in black and white stripes with a toothless grin, maybe he’s not). But the police have one more weapon to use and it’s a tracking device that can mimic a cellphone tower and send out signals that trick nearby cellphones into disclosing information.

Sound like a movie?

Well, believe it or not, it’s something that is happening right now, in today’s world. Maybe even down the street from where you are as you read this.

The device is called an IMSI catcher, or “stingray,” and it’s something that is becoming widely used by state and local agencies to track people down—by accessing ALL cellphones within its affected radius…including yours.

With this knowledge, it’s no wonder the Electronic Frontier Foundation labels stingrays as an “unconstitutional, all-you-can-eat data buffet.

How Stingrays Work

Cellular networks are distributed throughout areas called cells, with one “cell-site” per cell area. As you drive to work and travel throughout a region, you move amongst various cell areas and your phone naturally connects with each respective cell-site.

Now, your phone is programmed to connect with the strongest cell-site that it finds. What a stingray device does is broadcast signals that are more powerful than any of the nearby cell-sites, essentially tricking your phone to connect with it instead of the real thing.

It can happen to your phone without you ever noticing anything at all.

Once your phone connects, the stingray device can target its IMSI—the specific set of numbers that identifies each cellular device—and, depending on how sophisticated the stingray is, it can even get a hold of metadata and text messages from your phone.

Sound like an invasion of privacy? We think so too.

Who is using these devices, and who is in control of HOW they use them?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has gone so far as to identify 72 agencies that own stingrays, including the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, and the DEA, but this also includes the local police departments of many cities. This number is nowhere near exact, as many agencies don’t want to disclose the fact that they own or use such a device.

What does this mean for everyday people?

A situation could look like this: If the police are actively tracking down a suspect through the use of a stingray device, your privacy may be compromised if you are within the affected range.

Perhaps you’re at home, making a phone call to your bank, and down the street from you is a targeted suspect whom the police are tracking down. As soon as the police activate their stingray device, it will be able to access your phone and certain personal data—even with the potential to record your conversation.

This means there is a lot of information being accessed unknowingly from cellular devices. And if we stop for a moment and think about the number of people who own cellphones…the mass amount of at-risk information is mind-blowing.

In fact, as of spring 2017 there are 237.72 million cellphone users within the United States.

With this many cellphones being used across the country, it makes it impossible for a target to be identified without an immense amount of citizens’ phones being accessed in the process.

Furthermore, within a criminal investigation, certain boundaries have to be followed when accessing personal data and invading an individual’s privacy and rights, but those boundaries are not always heeded. There have been many occasions where a stingray device, an encroachment of privacy, was used without a warrant.

The transition from tracking terrorists to petty crime

Stingrays were intended predominantly for use by federal agencies and the intelligence community and, at the beginning, those were exactly the people who had access to this type of technology. But as it has filtered down the ranks, stingrays have begun to be used quite aggressively, now even being called upon in the policing of acts of petty crime.

Beyond that, there have been many occasions where a stingray device has been used without anything criminal occurring at all.

During a 2014 protest in Chicago, hundreds of people lined a street while a police vehicle—outfitted with cameras from its roof—followed behind. At the time, the purpose of the vehicle was unknown, but information was later released that unveiled what precisely had been happening inside that car.  A week after the protest, an audio recording of a police radio dispatch was released online, revealing that a device had been operating within the police vehicle that could access nearby cellphones and record information.

It turned out that the police were using the device to gather more information about the protesters by accessing information from the phones being used amongst the crowd.

What are the legalities of using a stingray?

Several recent court rulings have taken a step in the right direction, stating that police are not legally allowed to use such a device to glean data, listen in on private phone conversations, or track locations without a warrant. However, many cases in the past show examples of stingrays being used without a warrant.

To make matters foggier, suppliers of tracking devices have invoked non-disclosure agreements that suppress information about stingrays during court cases—if questions are asked, then often the prosecutor will withdraw from the case or quote the nondisclosure agreement.

It’s all very hush-hush and controlled, and for the general public, it means many raised questions about data privacy while using cellphones.

The rules and regulations surrounding the use of stingray devices are unclear and unreliable. Agencies have lied about using them in court, and in-depth information about them is not clearly available to the public.

In New York, it has been discovered that stingray devices were used over 1,000 times over the course of seven years without a written policy.

Due to the fact that such devices affect all cellphones within its range, countless numbers of New Yorkers have had their data privacy at risk. The government needs to step up and create new boundaries to protect its citizens as unique technology continues to overstep the boundaries put in place in the past.

Catching the “bad guys” is an honorable and worthwhile goal, and keeping the peace is a needed function of society, but at what cost? And through what means?

Light needs to be cast on the issues connected to stingray technology and agencies need to begin to be held accountable for the way they go about their jobs.

And an “unconstitutional, all-you-can-eat data buffet” doesn’t seem the best way to go about that.