Here’s how the IRS can spy on you

27 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Even the IRS has Stingray phone surveillance tools.

Stingray devices are IMSI-catchers, otherwise known as “cell-site stimulators.” Disguised as cellphone towers, they can retrieve metadata and content from cellphones in the area.The Internal Revenue Service was revealed to by one of the many federal agencies that spent tens of thousands of dollars on controversial technology that tracks people by their cellphones.

Invoices show that the IRS bought the briefcase-sized “cell-site simulator” devices from the Harris Corporation, a company that manufactures Stingrays, in 2009 and 2012, according to government documents obtained by the Guardian. And according to a report from The Guardian citing documents from a Freedom of Information Act request, the IRS is the 13th government agency that owns Stingray devices—cell phone tower simulators that can track people by scraping their phone metadata: The 2009 IRS/Harris Corp invoice is mostly redacted under section B(4) of the Freedom of Information Act, which is intended to protect trade secrets and privileged information. The evidence of the potentially invasive equipment comes just days after the IRS escaped legal culpability for secretly targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

However, an invoice from 2012, which is also partially redacted, reports that the agency spent $65,652 on upgrading a Stingray II to a HailStorm, a more powerful version of the same device, as well as $6,000 on training from Harris Corporation. The equipment works by pretending to be cellphone towers in order to strip metadata – and in some cases even content – from phones which connect to them. “The info showing that they are using Stingrays is generally consistent with the kinds of investigative tactics that they are engaging in, and it shows the wide proliferation of this very invasive surveillance technology,” Nate Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union tells the Guardian.

Mark Matthews, former deputy commissioner for services and enforcement at the IRS, says the agency hires between 2,000 and 3,000 “special agents” to perform criminal investigations. Most documented Stingray use stems from court orders called PEN registers, which allow law enforcement to “track and trace” someone’s location, not the content of their phone conversations—but Stingrays can also be used as wiretapping devices. As The Guardian notes, the IRS has around 2,500 special agents who handle criminal tax violations, and it’s possible that they used Stingrays while investigating drug-related money laundering operations or terrorist funding — which is sometimes done in partnership with the FBI, already known to use Stingrays in its investigations. But there it is: the IRS not only has a Stingray, but it paid $65,000 to upgrade it to the Hailstorm model, allowing it to continue to intercept calls and data without being locked out by upgraded cell networks. Despite their powerful capabilities, Stingrays can be used by the government with only a low-level court order called a PEN register, the Guardian reports.

While these documents only show that it bought them, not when or where it uses them, it’s not clear if Stingrays get used on a daily basis or trotted out once a year for big money laundering busts. Matthews says PEN register devices can easily be transformed into full wiretaps by inserting a headphone jack, and we just have to trust that federal agencies won’t take advantage of that.

In September, the Department of Justice revealed a new policy requiring federal officials to get a search warrant supported by probable cause before using Stingrays and routinely deleting the information they pick up. Meanwhile, the scandal-scarred IRS is reportedly still holding up the applications of tea party groups for nonprofit status, including one that has been waiting nearly six years for approval.

He claims he hasn’t heard anything about Stingray usage from his IRS contacts, which could mean that it isn’t “ripened” yet or it’s saved for more serious investigations regarding money laundering, drug organizations, or terrorist financing. It’s unclear why the agency bought the devices, but they could have been for its criminal investigation division, which sometimes does investigations (related to things like money laundering or the drug trade) with full-time law enforcement agencies. They’ve proved attractive to both local law enforcement and federal agencies; besides the IRS, at least 12 other agencies — which range from US military branches to the Drug Enforcement Administration — have access to them. Considering the criminal activity the IRS investigates most frequently — tax evasion — rarely involves highly-mobile suspects or the use of burner phones, it seems unlikely the IRS’s Stingray sees much use.

Conservatives have railed at the Justice Department’s decision last week that it had cleared the IRS and its former executive Lois Lerner of any wrongdoing in the targeting scandal. “It’s no wonder why so many Americans have had it with Washington and the elite political class who can get away with something like this,” Mark Meckler, president of Citizens for Self-Governance, tells the Washington Times. Matthews added: It could be as silly as [they] got to the end of the year, had some extra funds, and somebody said, ‘We need some more of these devices.’ It could literally be that silly. Federal agencies are allowed to skirt the rules in the case of “dire circumstances,” such as when agents are attempting to avoid a death or injury, to keep a cellphone or other device they are tracking from being destroyed, or when a pursued criminal is in danger of escaping. But privacy advocates have complained that they take a dragnet approach to collecting information, and they’re often used with relatively little oversight or transparency. Though the decision still offers some loopholes to law enforcement, it showed that ongoing discussion about stingrays has made it more difficult to use them in secret.

In November 2014, the Wall Street Journal uncovered an operation run by the US Marshals Service using a Boeing-made IMSI-catcher known as “dirtbox”. When the news arrives that Fish and Wildlife or the US Postal Inspector’s Office has one, it will be greeted with “of course they do” shrugs, because that’s just the way things go these days.The US government is sold on the “essentialness” of cell tower simulators and with funding for devices often tied to ever-swelling budget lines for Wars A (Drugs) and B (Terrorism), no agency should have to go without. From these joint operations, he said, “the IRS had moved to drug work and had learned a lot of aggressive techniques in the money laundering and drug world, and these bad habits were leaking over into the tax world, which was supposed to be their real mission”.

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