Stingray devices allow users to monitor all cell phone calls in a given area Photo: CC. Seth Anderson.
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Governments, corporations have more sources of electronic information

After years of rumours, leaks, and whistleblowing, numerous police services across Canada have publicly admitted their use of IMSI-catchers in surveillance and sting operations. More commonly known as “Stingrays,” these microwave-sized devices are often placed in police vehicles near a site of suspected illegal activity to monitor all cellular communication in and out of the area.

After several controversial cases involving Stingray devices, law enforcement agencies are facing a barrage of legal challenges concerning both the legal and ethical ramifications of their continued use. While Stingray technology is dangerous, in our era of increased electronic information sharing it’s not the only piece of technology you should be worried about.

Traditionally, when police believed a phone was used for illegal activity, they could request permission to wiretap a line. This changed as societies progressed and moved away from landlines. Courts responded by allowing police to access information coming from specific cell phones. However, criminals began using “burner phones”—cheap, disposable cell phones that could be easily replaced.

This cat and mouse game continued until national law enforcement agencies developed controversial “metadata” gathering techniques with which they could track—but not listen to—every call made between every cell phone in a network.

In an increasingly connected and wireless world, these cases will set a precedent for the legality of state surveillance for decades to come. As damaging as it is to have strict police surveillance, governments are not the only groups collecting information on citizens.

These secret surveillance programs were exposed to the public through a series of leaks, the most notable of which was Edward Snowden. Within days, criminals had adopted new techniques that made meta data tracking useless, and police had lost a powerful tool in the fight against organised crime.

Criminals had gotten smarter, and in response, Stingrays were secretly introduced across the world, typically without proper clearance.

The outrage was almost immediate, but the public fails to put this issue in context; breaches of privacy have become a mundane part of our 21st century lives. Google reads your emails to provide better services, Facebook collects your information and your data can be tracked by financial institutions to charge you different prices than your neighbour. We tolerate these programs because they make our lives more convenient, yet increased government surveillance is often met with unyielding resistance. Private corporations have convinced citizens that they are more responsible with your most intimate data than the government, despite their morally dubious goals.

We shouldn’t be having a conversation about the use of Stingrays by law enforcement—we should be having a conversation about how much we value personal privacy and how those values will shape all legislation going forward.

The current use of Stingrays amounts to illegal and borderline Orwellian surveillance. But criminalising their use will neuter police forces, likely forcing them to adopt more disruptive technologies and heavy handed tactics while failing to fix the loss of privacy that concerns so many people. It is in the government’s best interest to sanction the use of Stingray devices so that their use can be strictly monitored and controlled. Online privacy is an illusion, and if the public wants to recover it then they are barking up the wrong tree.