The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office recently became the first in Michigan to purchase a Hailstorm device, an incredibly powerful surveillance tool typically used by the NSA and CIA which allows police to routinely spy on thousands of people without them ever knowing.
The department has actively prevented the public from learning about the tool, refusing to answer basic questions about what it does and how they use it, only raising further suspicion about their activities.
Despite their best efforts at secrecy, Oakland County’s intransigence has led to exactly what it was hoping to avoid – public knowledge and debate about the existence and propriety of the invasive Hailstorm technology in the hands of law enforcement.
Michigan recently became the first state in the country to hold a public hearing specifically intended to turn the spy glass around and gather intelligence about Hailstorm technology.
What is a Hailstorm surveillance device?
Hailstorm technology extracts cellular data and intercepts calls and texts by masquerading as cell towers for Verizon, AT&T, and other phone companies.
This means that when your cell phone and wireless devices are in an area where police are using Hailstorm, instead of connecting to your phone company, you're actually connecting to the police. The police can then monitor your calls and wireless activity without you ever knowing you were being watched or that all of your information was secretly collected.
But Hailstorm is not just a surveillance device. It can also jam the cellular networks, preventing anyone or everyone from making any calls or sending any texts, even in an emergency. It can redirect your phone calls straight to the police or any other party they wish to connect you to. It can deliver malicious software and viruses to your phone or laptop that allow the police to take control of them.
The Hailstorm surveillance device is an updated version of Stingray, a family of technology that has been used in the military and intelligence community for the last 15-20 years.
Hailstorm’s manufacturer, the Harris Corporation, recently began selling the devices to local law enforcement with a non-disclosure agreement that forbids the police from revealing what it actually does and what its capabilities are to anyone – including judges and legislatures.
Law enforcement not only mislead judges as to the capabilities of these devices in order to obtain judicial orders under lower legal standards, they often fail to disclose that what they are seeking permission for is a Hailstorm or Stingray device rather than traditional surveillance tools, as the format of their requests suggest. This deception encourages judges to issue orders that set dangerous new legal precedents establishing the acceptance and legality of Hailstorm and Stingray devices without ever evaluating their constitutionality.
Our democracy was founded on the fundamental prohibition against general warrants. Yet that is exactly what Hailstorm and Stingray surveillance devices do: they search the walls of every home and building in the vicinity, indiscriminately sweeping up any and all information from countless wireless devices with no telling how the information will be used against us.
It would be highly illegal for any of us ordinary citizens to do the equivalent of what the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office claims is no big deal – yet is important enough for them to keep it secret from the public.
Ending the Secrecy around Surveillance
On Tuesday, May 13, Michigan became the first state to hold a public hearing on Hailstorm and Stingray surveillance devices.
Organized by House Oversight Committee Chair Tom McMillin (R) in response to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office refusal to answer questions or appear before the committee, the hearing was a public accounting of what is known about Hailstorm and Stingray devices.
On hand to testify were two people with unique knowledge of the devices and their use by law enforcement.
Chris Soghoian, Principal Technologist and Senior Policy Analyst for the National ACLU, testified about what we know about Hailstorm and Stingray surveillance technology and why it’s not actually as secretive as the Harris Corporation would have us believe.
Brian Owsley, a former U.S. Magistrate judge, explained how law enforcement use deception to gain judicial approval, misleading judges about the invasiveness of Hailstorm and Stingray surveillance devices.
The hearing was live-streamed for the public, but we think the testimony about these dangerous tools is too important to be lost.
Here’s a summary of the testimony educating the Michigan legislature and citizens about the Hailstorm/Stingray devices that may be coming to a municipality near you.
While we hope Michigan joins Utah and Indiana in passing legislation requiring police to obtain a warrant based on probable cause in accordance with the Fourth Amendment before collecting cellular data, those states did so without a hearing bringing all the facts into the light.
This hearing should serve as an example for more states to take the lead and bring these invasive and powerful surveillance devices out of the shadows and before the public, where our Constitution requires they belong.
By Sofia Rahman, Legal Fellow