An exclusive Vocativ survey of official documents revealed just how many of these surveillance gadgets the president has at his disposal
President Donald Trump is learning to reframe how he speaks about surveillance. On March 4, he claimed that former President Barack Obama had ordered Trump’s “wires tapped,” then later claimed “wiretap covers a lot of things,” prompting some members of Congress to try to capitalize on the moment to scrutinize what kind of spying, exactly, is legal when it comes to American citizens.
But even in this environment, there’s little hope of reforming a much clearer but unheralded form of spying: police use of stingray devices to track Americans’ phones. As Trump surveys the surveillance system at his disposal, he should know that there are at least 471 of the location-spying devices in the U.S. today, according to an exclusive Vocativ survey of known police and other official documents.
The term “stingray” is like “Kleenex” — in that it’s a brand name that became so prominent, it’s used to describe any similar product. The federal government tends to call these devices “cell-site simulators,” and they’re also known as IMSI catchers. Whatever you call them, they share a handful of things in common: They’re illegal for civilians to use; they’re expensive, ranging from some $40,000 to more than half a million dollars if you include accessories; their legality is still being figured out in our court system; and they vacuum up cell phone locations. Strikingly, only a handful of states, including California, Utah, Virginia, and Washington, actually require a warrant for their use, and to date there is no federal law that regulates them.