The FBI is using a controversial technology traditionally used to locate smartphones as a car tracking surveillance tool that spies on vehicles’ on-board WiFi.
Known as a Stingray or a cell-site simulator, the tool masquerades as a cell tower in order to force all devices in a given area to connect into it. Agents can then pick the number they’re interested in and locate the device. Normally that would be a mobile phone, but a search warrant application discovered by Forbes shows it can also be used to find vehicles, as long as they have onboard Wi-Fi. That’s because car Wi-Fi systems act like a phone, in that they reach out to mobile networks to get their data. So it makes sense that police would use it to find a car, though this appears to be the first case on record of it happening.
The application to use the Stingray was filed by the FBI in Wisconsin in May, as it sought to locate a vehicle - a Dodge Durango Hellcat - it believed was being used by a man indicted for drug dealing and firearms possession crimes.
The FBI had already been given permission to use other kinds of surveillance to locate another vehicle, a “black Jeep,” associated with the suspect, according to the warrant application. Again, they were surveillance techniques traditionally used to track cellphones, the first being a pen register, which gets data from a cellphone provider to monitor connections made by the device to other phones or electronic devices. The second was a so-called “ping warrant,” which shows the locations of cell towers used by a device. That gave them the location of a car dealership, where they learned the suspect had traded in the Jeep for the Dodge, the FBI wrote in its application.
After that, the FBI decided to use the cell-site simulator. Towards the end of the warrant application, a federal agent explained why, noting that cars like the Dodge were “frequently equipped with cellular modems inside their vehicles. These cellular modems are assigned a unique cellular identifier and generate historical and prospective records similar to a traditional cellular phone.”
“These records can assist law enforcement in identifying the location of the vehicle including patterns of travel and areas where the subject may reside or frequent. Most Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) have partnered with AT&T or Verizon to provide cellular connectivity within their vehicles. A check of open source information from AT&T identifies the 2021 Dodge Durango Hellcat as a vehicle that has a built-in WiFi hotspot that is serviced by AT&T.”