A new device that has the ability to peer through walls to detect signs of movement is alarming civil-rights advocates and judges after a USA Today report revealed they are being used by at least 50 law enforcement agencies.
At issue is whether use of the device without a warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment; the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that similar radar-enabled searches of private residences would be unconstitutional.
"The idea that the government can send signals through the wall of your house to figure out what's inside is problematic," Christopher Soghoian, the American Civil Liberties Union's principal technologist, told USA Today.
The device, called a Range-R, bills itself as "a handheld sensor capable of sending Radar signals through the walls and locating people inside buildings." It is capable of penetrating "poured concrete, concrete block, brick, wood, stucco glass, adobe, [and] dirt," according to manufacturer L3 Communications.
Range-R devices were first developed for use in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have been on the market in the U.S. for two years now. They represent a new wave of battlefield technology posing privacy issues as they make their way from the war zone to civilian police forces, such as the MRAPs and assault vehicles that police departments have been receiving free of charge from the Pentagon's controversial 1033 program.
Last week, President Obama made an executive order in an effort to create more oversight of that program.
In the case of the Range-R, however, federal officials are only starting to catch on. The first mention of the device or its wider implications by an appellate court came as recently as last month, according to the USA Today report:
That case began when a fugitive-hunting task force headed by the U.S. Marshals Service tracked a man named Steven Denson, wanted for violating his parole, to a house in Wichita. Before they forced the door open, Deputy U.S. Marshal Josh Moff testified, he used a Range-R to detect that someone was inside.
Moff's report made no mention of the radar; it said only that officers "developed reasonable suspicion that Denson was in the residence."
Agents arrested Denson for the parole violation and charged him with illegally possessing two firearms they found inside. The agents had a warrant for Denson's arrest but did not have a search warrant. Denson's lawyer sought to have the guns charge thrown out, in part because the search began with the warrantless use of the radar device.
Three judges on the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the search, and Denson's conviction, on other grounds. Still, the judges wrote, they had "little doubt that the radar device deployed here will soon generate many questions for this court."
The debate over the Range-R device is just heating up, but it is already starting to take the same dimension as the battle over the "stingray"— the questionable tool often used by law enforcement agencies which emulates a cell phone tower, thereby tricking nearby cell phones into sharing private data with it.
In recent months, the FBI has stated its position that search warrants are not necessary when the stingray is in a public space. Since then, apps have popped up on the market that would notify skeptical cell phone users when a stingray device is being used on their phone.
And likewise, the Range-R device seems to have a (rather costly) weakness that could help keep citizens off its radar until the courts catch up with the technology—"it will not penetrate metal," reads a description on the device's website.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.