From Con Artist to Government Combatant: A Recluse Comes out of Hiding

Daniel Rigmaiden was arrested for fraud at 27—only to uncover StingRay, a major secret spying technology used by the government.
Daniel Rigmaiden. (Photos: Pivot)
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Feb 4, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

By the time Daniel Rigmaiden was 16, he knew he wanted to live off the grid.

“I decided not to participate in society after I graduated high school because I was upset about the whole government machine,” he recalls of his early disillusionment. “The whole thing felt like a sham. I knew I had to participate and try to fix it or opt out and not be involved at all.”

Rigmaiden decided to opt out. After graduating in 1999, he began using multiple fake identities, moving from town to town in coastal California selling fake IDs. He began filing tax returns for dead people, pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years. In 2008, his luck ran out: After a joint investigation by the FBI, the IRS, and the U.S. Postal Service, Rigmaiden was arrested and charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, among other charges. He was 27.

As he sat in jail awaiting his trial, however, he couldn’t stop thinking about the lengths he had gone to, to cover his tracks. He obsessed over how, in spite of that, federal agents had found him.

“My apartment wasn’t in my name, and I made sure no one ever followed me back home when I went out,” Rigmaiden, now 35, tells TakePart. “There weren’t any loose ends.”

Except for one: the Verizon AirCard he used to get online. Rigmaiden had intentionally purchased a card without a GPS chip and knew that triangulations from cell towers would only track the card in a broad range rather than offer a specific location. But it was still the one piece that made him vulnerable to surveillance.

Realizing this, Rigmaiden became convinced the government had used some kind of high-powered secret technology to track the AirCard and find him—a story featured in the documentary series Truth and Power, directed by Brian Knappenberger and airing Friday on Pivot (watch a sneak peek below).

From his cell, Rigmaiden started to draw out what the tool must have looked like. He spent 15 hours writing a letter filled with diagrams explaining the secret technology, then sent it to his court-appointed attorney. The lawyer didn’t reply and withdrew from his case. A second appointed attorney urged Rigmaiden to take a plea agreement and refused to show him any of the orders obtained by the government to track him.

Determined, Rigmaiden chose to defend himself, spending hours in the jail’s law library teaching himself the law and poring over any books that seemed helpful. Eventually, the government turned over 14,000 pages of evidence it had collected against him, and he sifted through it page by page. That’s when he found the most important word in his case: StingRay.

A drawing Rigmaiden made while in jail shows how he imagined StingRay worked. (Photo: Pivot)

“There was a summary of how they located me,” Rigmaiden says. “It matched exactly what I theorized.”

What had started as a search for a solid defense that would get him out of jail led to the realization that his case was much bigger than him. He began requesting cases by phone from a paralegal who worked for his third attorney, who still assisted him occasionally. The hunt led to numerous historical cell-site-information cases being tackled by civil liberties groups, raising serious privacy concerns.

“I was getting some copies of their briefs and realized if this was a big issue, then the StingRay must be a huge issue,” Rigmaiden says.

Called “an unconstitutional, all-you-can-eat data buffet” by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Stingrays are used by federal and local law enforcement to search for specific cell phone signals in large areas. While StingRay is the brand name for the initial device produced by Harris Corporation, "Stingray" has become a generic catch-all for all such technology. The device poses as a cell phone tower; when phones are used, it picks up data on callers' precise locations and who is being called. Privacy advocates are especially critical of the fact that this process involves triggering responses from all cell phones in the targeted area—not just that of a suspect.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted an amicus brief supporting Rigmaiden’s defense in 2012. “The devices broadcast electronic signals that penetrate the walls of private locations not visible to the naked eye, including homes, offices, and other private locations of the target and third parties in the area,” reads the brief.

Rigmaiden in 'Truth and Power.' (Photo: Pivot)

In other words, Stingray is the Fourth Amendment’s worst nightmare.

Rigmaiden and Stingray were thrust into the spotlight. Once a recluse who avoided societal participation at all costs, Rigmaiden—who was released from jail following a negotiated plea agreement in 2014—now actively consults with the ACLU and other organizations in ongoing litigation and legislative advocacy work regarding the use of Stingrays. Working with the ACLU’s Washington state chapter, he helped draft a bill that gained bipartisan support to regulate the use of Stingrays. He also regularly assists journalists with document searches to encourage accurate reporting.

RELATED: ‘Truth and Power’ Sneak Peek: How Governments Spy on Their Own Citizens

“As long as the spotlight’s on me, I’m going to try and voice my opinion and change things for the better,” Rigmaiden says.

As the saga of his discovery sets to air this week, Rigmaiden shares that he followed the story of hacker activist Aaron Swartz while he was in jail and was interested in working with Knappenberger after learning he’d made The Internet's Own Boy, a documentary about Swartz.

“This is the first time there’s been anything on this in video form,” Rigmaiden says. “I think this is a good way to get the message out about Stingray and hopefully get people motivated to get involved.”

Today, Rigmaiden sees a different world from the one he wanted to check out of as a disenchanted teenager. With the advent of social media, it’s easier to connect and disseminate alternative messages, which gives him hope for change.

“It’s possible now to take on the machine and make a difference,” he says. “The underdog can make a difference and prevail.”

Truth and Power airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot, Participant Media’s television network. You can also learn about protecting your civil liberties in the digital age by exploring “Know Your Rights,” a Pivot-supported initiative from the ACLU of Southern California.