Report: IRS Used Cell Phone Spying Equipment for Investigations

Because the IRS isn't unscrupulous enough.

Because the IRS isn't unscrupulous enough. A disturbing, if not unsurprising report published by the Guardian reveals that the Internal Revenue Service used “sophisticated cellphone dragnet equipment” to spy on Americans. What's more, it is relatively easy to obtain a warrant to use the equipment, dubbed a “Stingray,” which simulates a cell-phone tower in order to capture the cell-signals and the data contained therein.  

Invoices obtained following a request under the Freedom of Information Act show purchases made in 2009 and 2012 by the federal tax agency with Harris Corporation, one of a number of companies that manufacture the devices. Privacy advocates said the revelation “shows the wide proliferation of this very invasive surveillance technology”.

The 2009 IRS/Harris Corp invoice is mostly redacted under section B(4) of the Freedom of Information Act, which is intended to protect trade secrets and privileged information. However, an invoice from 2012, which is also partially redacted, reports that the agency spent $65,652 on upgrading a Stingray II to a HailStorm, a more powerful version of the same device, as well as $6,000 on training from Harris Corporation.

Despite their extensive capabilities, they require only a low-level court order called a PEN register, also known as a “trap and trace”, to grant permission for their use.

The ACLU, forever the protector of our rights, is also investigating. Thus far, it "remains unclear how the IRS used the Stingray devices" and of course, the agency has declined to comment. 

Immense secrecy has so far surrounded these devices, but a picture is slowly emerging which shows widespread use. Various revelations by the American Civil Liberties Union and news outlets including the Guardian had shown that at least 12 federal agencies are already known to have these devices, including the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The IRS makes 13.

A former IRS agent, however, did expand on the potential motivation behind the IRS' use of Stingrays.

Mark Matthews, a former deputy commissioner for services and enforcement at the agency who now works for the law firm Caplin and Drysdale, said that while he attends many conferences on IRS and tax law enforcement, he had not heard any “scuttlebutt” about the agency’s use of Stingray.

Matthews said there are currently between 2,000 and 3,000 “special agents” in the IRS who form the criminal investigation division (CID). They have the ability to get PEN register orders – the only authority needed to use Stingray devices.

He said the IRS on its own usually uses gentler investigation tactics. But increasingly, investigating agents from the agency are brought on board for joint operations with the FBI and other agencies when the latter need financial expertise to look at, for example, money laundering from drug organisations. From these joint operations, he said, “the IRS had moved to drug work and had learned a lot of aggressive techniques in the money laundering and drug world, and these bad habits were leaking over into the tax world, which was supposed to be their real mission”.

This is always how it begins. Recall that in an effort to apprehend terrorists, the Patriot Act was born, even under a Republican administration. Now, under the guise of nabbing drug-lords, the IRS is given access to spy equipment. How easy it becomes then to use that equipment on anyone, anytime, for any reason.

“That used to be a worry at the FBI with their PEN register [devices],” he [Matthews] said. “There was always a little slot where you could put in a headphone jack” – which could turn the device into a full wiretap, for which they did not have warrant clearance – “and they said, ‘Trust us.’ Not very convincing for civil liberties groups.”

Nate Wessler, a staff attorney with the speech, privacy and technology project at the ACLU, told the Guardian: “The info showing that they are using Stingrays is generally consistent with the kinds of investigative tactics that they are engaging in, and it shows the wide proliferation of this very invasive surveillance technology.” “It’s used by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of local law enforcement, used by the usual suspects at the federal level, and if the IRS is using it, it shows just how far these devices have spread,” Wessler said.

What members of the Left often fail to realize is that advocating for big government invites the very breeches the ACLU is decrying here. They never seem to put two and two together -- that it is easy for Americans' freedoms and privacy to be stripped away, right from under their noses, and oftentimes with their own (if unwitting) blessing.