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What is a Stingray and How Does it Work


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Variously referred to as a cell site stimulator, a stingray is a cell-phone surveillance device that can obtain the content of text and voice communications of a cell-phone user in the vicinity as well as listen in on their conversations by using that person’s phone as a bug.

Stingrays function by imitating cell towers and deceiving phones in the immediate locality into transmitting signals and connecting to the device in the same way that they would to an ordinary networked tower.

What is a Stingray?

Before answering this, it is important to first describe how your cell-phone is constantly broadcasting your location. Simply put, whenever you make a call on your cellular device, there is a radio receiver and transmitter on the inside that tries to connect to a cellular tower or network- you can actually see this radio connection in progress by checking the bars on your phone, a measure of signal strength.

how a stingray works

Your cell’s radio will try to connect to the strongest and nearest radio signal from a tower or base station so that your call can travel across your preferred cellular network all the way to the person you are calling.

The same holds true when you are tweeting, texting, or sending a selfie: radios in your cell connect to other radios to transmit data, calls, or texts from the Internet.

While your network provider cannot always figure out your exact location, it has a rough idea based on the tower(s) you are connecting to and can, perhaps, triangulate where you are more precisely based on the strength of other nearby tower signals.

Once your network provider identifies your general area, a stingray or a device like it can then narrow that down to not only the street or building you are in, but even the room where your phone is.

how a stingray works

How Stingrays Steal Your Information

Cell-phones are characterized by a number of unique digital identifiers that are constantly being blasted out so that networks (Wi-Fi or cellular) can decipher whether your device is allowed to send and/or receive data on a particular network. Among these identifiers are the Electronic Serial Number (ESN) and the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI).

In 1996, a German corporation called Rohde and Schwarz began selling something it referred to as an IMSI catcher, to track these unique phone IDs. There are now numerous companies that sell similar devices (often for tens of thousands of dollars each) to security organizations and law enforcement agencies around the world.

what cities use stingrays

At their core, IMSI catchers like stingrays are just radio transmitters that pretend to be a tower or base station, except that they are unlikely to route your calls through to your friends. Instead, they can track and identify your phone as well as block you from making calls and in certain circumstances, on specific devices, even record your actual conversations.

As with cell towers, stingrays are hampered by a limited range, so one has to be near an IMSI catcher in order to appear on its system. The closer you get, the stronger the signal becomes, which is how it pinpoints location. However, they are also indiscriminate- they track everyone in the area in the hope of identifying a target it actually wants.


For a device that started selling two decades ago, there was surprisingly little public mention of the stingray in the U.S. (A Stanford journal noted the existence of the technology in 2006). In 2010, Jim Finkle (former Reuters reporter) attended a DefCon hacker conference and thereafter wrote about Chris Paget’s development of an IMSI catcher that cost about $1,500, saying that law enforcement had long had access to expensive mobile phone tapping equipment.

Further evidence of its usage surfaced in 2011 when convicted felon Daniel Rigmaiden, serving a prison sentence for filing fraudulent tax refunds, sent an eye opening report to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that he had been living off the grid in the California forests when he was arrested.

He suspected that an unknown device had been used to track him down via his Internet air card. This case was the subject of several stories, and journalists and law makers began asking questions regarding the purchase of these devices, which are known to contain strict non-disclosure agreements that bar those who purchase them from discussing their usage even in sworn testimony.

 US government uses stingray to collect information

Why it is referred to as a stingray

The ‘Stingray’ trademark was first filed in 2001 by Harris Corporation as a brand of IMSI catcher. It is a rectangular non-descript box with a variety of output and input ports, and is similar to a box that you would slide into a control room or server room at a TV or radio station.

That same year, Harris Corporation also filed trademarks on various complimentary devices such as the Kingfish (a cheaper, more portable stingray), Amberjack (a range boosting antenna), and Triggerfish (a device designed to listen in on conversations of nearby cell-phone users).

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