There’s an old saying that tells us the only two certainties in life are “death” and “taxes” – meaning that the only thing you can really guarantee is that both types of debt are going to come due sooner rather than later. According to a new report covered by websites like Truth Revolt and in publications like The Guardian, the IRS may be even more unscrupulous than the Grim Reaper himself. It seems as though IRS agents have been using “sophisticated cell phone dragnet equipment,” otherwise known as advanced cell phone spying tools, to collect information on American citizens who may be more-than-a-little behind on their taxes.
The IRS and Spying: What’s Going On
Thanks to information obtained through what was supposed to be a fairly standard Freedom of Information Act request, it was revealed that the IRS made a number of large purchases between 2009 and 2012 with a company called Harris Corporation. What makes this so interesting is that Harris Corporation is one of the few companies on earth that manufactures “Stingray” devices, which are often used by law enforcement personnel to simulate a cell phone tower in the area.
“Stingray” devices are actually a pretty ingenious way to use a cell phone’s own standard method of operation against the user. Whenever you make a call (or send a text message, or use the cellular network to access the Internet), your phone connects to a nearby cell tower in the area. It essentially uses this tower as a “jumping on point” to gain access to the larger network – your phone connects to the tower, and the tower is connected to the World Wide Web.
If you were to send a text, it would first go through the tower and then across the network to your recipient. In a “Stingray” situation, however, the tower is an illegitimate one used by local law enforcement (or in this case, the IRS). Your phone can’t tell the difference, and, in most cases, neither can the user as they’re still sending and receiving the information they needed with no clear signs that something might be wrong.
Because that fake cell tower is in third-party control, whoever happens to be using the “Stingray” device can see EVERY kilobyte of data sent and received over it. If you’re a drug dealer who is using a smartphone to buy and sell your product and you happen to accidentally use a “Stingray” set up by the cops, law enforcement now knows what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. If you’re a private citizen who is actively avoiding paying your taxes (or who is using your smartphone to conceal your income) and use one of those same “Stingray” towers monitored by the IRS, suddenly your secret activities aren’t so secret anymore.
One of the invoices obtained during the Freedom of Information Act request shows that the IRS spent more than $65,000 in 2012 upgrading their equipment to the “HailStorm” product line, which is essentially a more powerful version of the original “Stingray” architecture. Likewise, they spent about $6,000 during the same year training their employees on how to use them. Privacy advocates, including those at the ACLU, say that this is a clear example of the “wide proliferation” of this very invasive type of surveillance technology. To its credit, the ACLU is currently in the process of an investigation.
Former employees of the IRS have been helpful in terms of shedding light onto the full extent of this program. Many say that they are in use by the CID or “Criminal Investigation Division,” a branch of the IRS that currently employs between 2,000 and 3,000 people. It is said that the IRS leans heavily on “more gentle” investigation tactics and only employs these surveillance options when absolutely necessary. If you think you’ll be protected by the fact that you need a warrant to use “Stingray,” unfortunately you’d be wrong – experts agree that they’re surprisingly easy to obtain.