DANIEL Rigmaiden went by many different names. He had bank accounts in the names of Patrick Stout, Sam Blat, Benjamin Cohan and Aaron Johnson.
He used his multiple identities to hide a successful racket in which he stole dead people’s identities and forged their tax returns, raking in at least a million dollars.
When the police raided his California home in 2008, they found $170,000, 6.5kg of gold, and 17kg of silver. They also discovered an “AirCard”, the unregistered wireless internet device he used to manage his fraudulent bank accounts.
He was jailed and charged with 35 counts of wire fraud, 35 counts of aggravated identity theft and three other charges.
But Rigmaiden was suspicious. “They didn’t know who I was or where I was,” he told news.com.au. “They found where I was living, followed me and ended up arresting me.”
He believed there was only one way police could have tracked him down — by monitoring his AirCard and following the signal to his apartment. “I had everything else covered. I was using a lot of fake IDs, I wouldn’t go out and expose myself, everything was over the internet, I wasn’t associating myself with anyone.”
He began researching his theory from prison, but it was a slow process. “The government really didn’t want to show me anything,” he said.
It took a year for him to access the relevant documents, which were eventually delivered to the prison library in boxes. He had to sift through 15,000 pages until he found what he was looking for — a one-line reference to a mysterious mobile phone tracking device called “Stingray”. Even then, his first two lawyers didn’t want to pursue the issue.
But as Rigmaiden dug deeper, he discovered a global network of secretive police surveillance using off-the-shelf tracking products that had been around for at least a decade.
In 2012, he emailed Christopher Soghoian, a PhD student researching wireless surveillance. “He was in jail and he was convinced the government had used a secret surveillance device to capture him,” Soghoian told news.com.au. “These emails were not rare, people thinking the government was tracking them, or aliens had abducted them.”
But when Rigmaiden’s paralegal sent through a brief hundreds of pages long, Soghoian decided to read it. He was astounded.
“The technology described wasn’t alien technology from a sci-fi movie but stuff I learnt in graduate school,” said Soghoian. “We had learned it exploited flaws in technology to track you. What we didn’t learn was that it was being used by police around the country and the world.”
Soghoian contacted civil liberties groups, but no one seemed interested in the rantings of a prisoner. Finally, in 2011, Wall Street Journal reporter Jennifer Valentino-DeVries agreed to publish a front-page story on the mysterious “Stingray”, and how it was used by the FBI to catch criminals before being wiped of sensitive data after a raid.
The FBI had court permission to use Stingray, but Valentino-DeVries reported that it was just one of several new technologies used by law enforcement to track suspects, often without a search warrant. The paper has since published numerous articles on murky surveillance techniques.
Rigmaiden was released on a plea deal after five years in jail. He was taking up too much time and resources, he believes, with three prosecutors assigned to his case, along with the FBI and Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
He and Soghoian have continued learning everything they can about surveillance and exposing it. They submit Freedom of Information requests, and google tiny council meetings around the US to find out where the devices are being pushed through. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, as agencies who use the technology go underground.
It probably shouldn’t have fallen on the shoulders of an ex-con and a grad student to expose these shadowy practices, says Soghoian, but if they hadn’t found out, who knows how long it would have remained hidden? “The government is fighting us at every step,” he said.
Tracking devices are now routinely used without warrants by even small police departments, who buy cheap, relatively low-tech versions of the models designed for the military and intelligence agencies. Defendants and their lawyers are often not told when it has been used to charge them.
Washington is the only state that now has a policy mentioning Stingray, and secret surveillance is a growing concern around the world. Would-be buyers can even visit Chinese online store Alibaba, and pick up a tracking device for between $3000 and $7000, says Soghoian.
As for Rigmaiden’s criminal activity, he says he now has something much bigger to focus on. “The whole process was kind of a rehab.”