If you’re a stickler for online privacy, you know the trick isn’t to find a VPN or other privacy provider that won’t turn over their records to law enforcement — it’s finding a company that doesn’t keep records at all.

Turns out the police may be taking a page from them it comes to stingrays. A bit of background: stingrays, in case you don’t know, are devices originally developed for the intelligence and military communities to trick mobile devices into believing they are mobile phone towers. Stingrays can intercept voice and data transmissions and they are in use with police around the country as well as federal agencies.

When Ars Technica asked for records pertaining to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department  the agency replied that “no responsive documents exist.” In other words, like any good VPN, the sheriff department do not keep records.

Or do they? A Sacramento TV station filed a similar request, and in a grant application to Homeland Security from the department to upgrade its stingrays, it was revealed that the devices helped in over 500 investigations.

Despite the disclosure of the grant application, the SCSD refused to speak to Ars further about the matter, and conveyed the message though an attorney they’d retained.

Apparently, this kind of stonewalling is a rule and not an exception. Other law enforcement agencies do not have clear policies as to when stingrays can be employed and in many cases, warrants are not required. Local governments that are asked about them are bound by NDAs not to talk about about them. In the rare case a local government voted down the use of stingrays, one of the law makers revealed that there was an NDA to see the NDA.

However, the attorney general demanded tech companies to stop encrypting their smartphones. talking points that were thrown out included claims of kidnapping victims that won’t be found in time and, of course, kiddie porn merchants operating unhindered because of the privacy policies in place by Apple, Blackberry, Google and Microsoft.

These are old arguments that have been used to justify, and try to justify, spying on citizens and getting around the fourth ammendment. There was Clipper Chip and the FBI’s COINTELPRO. They aren’t the stuff of conspiracy theorists, but real programs the government’s done and tried to do when given too little oversight.

Once again, the federal government and police show a lack of respect for warrants and due process when it comes to stingrays. Instead, they use new surveillance technology when it suits them and let the courts hash out when and where they should be used and only after they’ve been caught using it. This isn’t just about stingrays — think domestic spying and GPS trackers.

Why shouldn’t anyone demand strong encryption and privacy protections from the companies that make their devices, at the very least?

Photo by Blake Patterson/flickr.

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