FBI challenged on info gathering gizmo in tax fraud case

Groundbreaking technology is amazing stuff (when it works). As with anything that is cutting edge, though, new technology often represents a double-edged sword. With all the apparent benefits come the risks that the tech tools will be used for nefarious purposes. And sometimes the good guys misuse the tools as readily as the bad guys.

Identity theft and tax-related crimes are two areas where technology developments seem to be employed with great effect. In reaction, authorities have come up with their own technology devices to counter the criminal element. And each new advance officials make raises questions about what is constitutional and what is not.

Just such a case is working its way through the legal system now. It stems from a federal investigation that led to the arrest of a man who allegedly stole hundreds of identities, filed more than 1,200 fake tax returns and laundered hundreds of thousands of dollars through various bank accounts.

The man was arrested in 2008 in Arizona and it is how authorities found him that is being challenged. According to court documents, investigators employed a device called a "stingray" to pinpoint his location in Phoenix. What a stingray does is mimic a cell phone tower to ping a suspect's electronic devices like phones and computers. It even allows authorities to listen in on conversations. What makes the device particularly controversial is that anyone who happens to be on the same cell network can also be listened to without their knowledge.

The defense in the tax fraud case notes that the warrant under which authorities employed the stingray technology didn't specifically mention all those details to the judge. It says the technology is so uniquely invasive that judges lacking the details can't properly do their job of protecting individual freedoms. Since it wasn't given in this case, the defense says evidence that resulted should be suppressed.

In response, the government says agents were dealing with new technology and didn't know any better -- a position that civil rights advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union dispute.

A ruling on the defense motion is expected yet this month.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "ID Theft Case Uncovers New Snooping Gizmo," Jamie Ross, April 1, 2013

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