American Cops Turns to Canadian Phone-Tracking Firm After Infamous ‘Stingrays’ Become ‘Obsolete’

A woman looks at the Police convoy as Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden arrives for an NBC townhall outside of the Perez Art Museum in Miami, Florida on October 5, 2020.
Photo: Chandan Khanna (Getty Images)

Law enforcement agencies across the United States are scrambling to secure funding for new cellphone-tracking equipment after the maker of the controversial “Stingray” device quietly announced last year it would no longer sell equipment directly to local law enforcement.

L3Harris Technologies, formerly known as the Harris Corporation, notified police agencies last year that it planned to discontinue sales of its surveillance boxes at the local level, according to government records. Additionally, the company would no longer offer access to software upgrades or replacement parts, effectively slapping an expiration date on boxes currently in use. Any advancements in cellular technology, such as the rollout of 5G networks in most major U.S. cities, would render them obsolete.

“Harris Corporation has advised that effective June 2020 they will no longer provide cellular tracking technology and vital software updates,” the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) said in a report from May of this year.

Gizmodo has reviewed similar statements from local California agencies in Anaheim, Ventura County, and San Bernardino. “The Sheriff’s Office cannot obtain upgrades to the current equipment in order to keep up with

technological changes in the cellular telephone industry,” a five-year “capital improvement plan” drawn up in Ventura reads. “The current equipment is no longer as useful as it was even two years ago, and will eventually become completely obsolete,” it says.

The MDPD and at least five other law enforcement agencies have turned to a North Carolina company named Tactical Support Equipment to supply new cell-site simulators known as the Nyxcell V800/F800 TAU—surveillance technology manufactured by a Canadian firm named Octasic.

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Minutes from a September 2019 Houston, Texas, city council meeting reference a $528,452 payment to Tactical Support Equipment. The New York State Police purchased a “cell site simulator” for $458,900 from the same company in 2018, according to the state comptroller’s office. A deleted record from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which was cached by Google, requests over $2.7 million in funding and states, “Octasic manufactures the Nyxcell line of cellular equipment,” adding the “only vendor authorized to distribute Nyxcell hardware, software and associated training services in the United States is Tactical Support Equipment (TSE).”

Law enforcement of nearly every variety in the U.S. are known to use cell-site simulators to track the locations of cellphones. The devices, roughly the size of a suitcase, are typically mounted inside of police vehicles. They operate by masquerading as a cellular base station, or cell tower, which connects mobile devices to cellular networks.

Originally designed solely for military and national security use, the devices are colloquially known as “Stingrays” after the popular model once manufactured by the Harris Corporation. Over the course of a decade, Harris has kept pace with evolving cellular standards by rolling out newer models such as the Hailstorm and the Crossbow, two devices that target 4G networks.

Octasic’s Nyxcell V800 can target most modern phones while maintaining the ability to capture older GSM devices. Florida’s state police agency described the device, made for in-vehicle use, as capable of targeting eight frequency bands including GSM (2G), CDMA2000 (3G), and LTE (4G).

According to a contract record reviewed by Gizmodo, the Nyxcell appears to include “a mobile workstation” capable of displaying and rendering maps to “reveal real time accurate locations of the target cellular device without manipulation of the device.”

From at least 2011 through 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation required local police departments to sign non-disclosure agreements when purchasing cell-site simulators. That may no longer be the case, according to Mike Katz-Lacabe, founder of the Center for Human Rights and Privacy, which has spent years researching and tracking the use of these devices.

Katz-Lacabe, who was first to discover that L3Harris had discontinued sales to local law enforcement, said the Alameda County District Attorney was not placed under an NDA when it purchased a Harris Hailstorm in 2016. “When we spoke to the person responsible for handling the public records requests for the Alameda County District Attorney, we were informed that the FBI did not require an NDA prior to purchasing a [cell-site simulator] from Harris,” he said.

A 2018 patent assigned to Octasic claims that Nyxcell forces a connection with nearby mobile devices when its signal is stronger than the nearest legitimate cellular tower. Once connected, Nyxcell prompts devices to divulge information about its signal strength relative to nearby cell towers. These reported signal strengths (intra-frequency measurement reports) are then used to triangulate the position of a phone.

Octasic appears to lean heavily on the work of Indian engineers and scientists overseas. A self-published biography of the company notes that while the company is headquartered in Montreal, it has “R&D facilities in India,” as well as a “worldwide sales support network.” Nyxcell’s website, which is only a single page requesting contact information, does not mention Octasic by name. Gizmodo was, however, able to recover domain records identifying Octasic as the owner.

While police departments have each paid well over a half-million dollars for the equipment bundle, it appears that in a few instances agencies are funding their purchases using grants from the federal government. Departments have typically relied on grants in the past to purchase phone-tracking equipment, such as those offered through the Department of Homeland Security’s Urban Area Security Initiative.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department assured county officials this year that purchase of a Nyxcell would be largely supported through grants, according to a December 2019 financial impact report. The sheriff’s office, which noted it uses cell-site simulators roughly 300 times per year, said of the Harris device: “The equipment and license are noticed to expire in 2020. As cell phone technology evolves, the current simulator has become obsolete. There is no option from the manufacturer to upgrade or replace parts and other components, nor to renew the service contract.”

Upgrading to the Nyxcell would cost roughly $636,500, the report says, but would be paid for through a U.S. Treasury fund derived from assets seized by the federal government and a 2018 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) grant.

Seized assets and taxes levied against citizens caught with illegal narcotics have long been used to fund the purchase of cell-site simulators. In 2010, for example, North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation used a “drug tax”—ranging anywhere from $3.50 per gram of marijuana to $50 per gram of cocaine—to purchase Harris equipment for tracking Nextel phones.

L3Harris Technologies did not respond to a request for comment.

Police records in multiple states describe Tactical Support Equipment (TSE) as the sole U.S. vendor from which authorities can purchase Nyxcell. TSE describes itself as a small, veteran-owned business “with extensive and real-world reconnaissance, surveillance and communications experience.” Employees of the company, according to its self-published biography, served in various theaters of war dating back to the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989.

TSE has won numerous federal contracts and supplies military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies with myriad surveillance and communications equipment, government records show.

Octastic did not return multiple requests for comment when asked to respond to privacy concerns raised by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Organization, which has described cell-site simulators as “incredibly invasive surveillance technology” often deployed secretly and without the knowledge of judges overseeing cases involving their use.

Calls and voicemail messages to Octastic Executive Chairman Michael Laurence and CEO Sebastien Leblanc went unanswered. The company did not respond to emails asking whether the devices included any technical safeguards intended to prevent potential abuse of the devices. Octasic did not respond when asked whether its devices are capable of intercepting text messages or the actual content of phone calls.

Likewise, TSE managers and executives, asked about technical safeguards and whether its police customers are contractually restricted from discussing the technology publicly, did not respond to questions by email. Reached by phone on Thursday, a TSE employee said that everyone at the company was “in a meeting.” No one returned our calls.

“It is important that the public is informed about these powerful and expensive surveillance devices, especially when local police departments rarely understand how the technology works,” Katz-Lacabe said. “When Harris Corporation was selling these to state and local law enforcement agencies, the software only allowed tracking of cell phones.” But the “federal version,” he noted, “enabled them to be used to intercept phone calls and text messages.”

These newer cell-site simulators haven’t received the same level of scrutiny from reporters and independent researchers. With its creator and distributor so far refusing to answer any questions, we are unable to report on Nyxcell’s full range of capabilities at this time.

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Dell Cameron and Dhruv Mehrotra