On November 10th 1999, Ramsey Electronics of Victor, New York, was raided by the United States Customs Service for allegedly manufacturing and distributing 'Electronic Surreptitious Intercept Devices' as defined by Title 18 USC, Section 2512. We spoke to both Ramsey Electronics President John Ramsey and Joel Violanti, the federal prosecutor on the case, to find out exactly what happened, and why. (Click below for more.)
On the morning of November 10th, radio equipment manufacturer Ramsey Electronics was raided by the United States Customs Service by officers with a search warrant. In addition to building radio testing equipment, Ramsey Electronics is also a well-known vendor of electronic hobby kits used by organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. Like an action movie drug-bust, agents moved in at 10 a.m. to search and seize over $30,000 worth of Ramsey Electronics inventory. Company President John Ramsey offered this play-by-play of that morning's events:
They had already been here almost an hour when I walked in. I [had been] at the bank. When I came back in, I saw my controller, Ed VanVoorhis and his face was white as a ghost. There were these two guys wearing suits standing on each side of him. He told me that these guys were from the government and they were here with a search warrant. Then the agents took over; they pretty much bullied me down the hallway and into my office. I went to go sit at my desk, and they said 'No. you sit over here,' pointing to a couch in my office. The two of them proceeded to rattle off a lot of mumble jumble like Title 18 USC Section 2512 and other numbers, flashing badges and being surrealistically intimidating. I'm looking at my accountant. I have never seem him like this. The [agents] are verbally batting me back and forth, and I'm like, 'Hey, what's going on?' They proceeded to tell me that they were executing a search warrant to find goods that were in violation of section 2512, and they shove this four or five page search warrant in my face.
They said that they were here to find stuff that violated section 2512 and I said, 'Like our wireless FM mic kits?' The one [agent] gave me his card, and I noticed that he was from Buffalo, an hour and a half away. I said, 'you two guys came all the way here from Buffalo?' and he said, 'No. There's seven of us.' Then he said, 'If you don't cooperate with us, we'll shut you down. We'll lock the doors, send all the employees home, we'll go through all of your inventory, records, customer lists and computers. We'll go through your computers bit-by-bit. We have experts that do that, and we don't care if it takes months.' I was escorted out to the production and shipping areas, which they had pretty much commandeered. All the doors had 8 1/2 x 11 pieces of paper taped on them with a large handwritten letter on them - like A, B and C. There was a fellow wearing a photographers vest snapping pictures everywhere; we later counted 5 empty film cans in the trash!
About five hours after they arrived, they staged all of the official US government boxes near the back loading dock. They took a huge van and backed it up to my loading dock, and proceeded to load it with my goods. I walked over to the boxes to verify what they were taking; obviously, they would want me to confirm their counts and amounts. I was stunned! They wouldn't let me see what was in the boxes! I have no idea what they took. I went over to look in them, and they told me to get away. They told me they'd give me an inventory sheet. I said, 'That's my stuff and I should be able to check it.' Special Agent Craig Healy turned to me and said 'You can trust us.'"
After they had finished loading the van, they presented me with the inventory sheet, a simple handwritten sheet with no names, titles or signatures. There's nothing indicating who it was from on it. I looked at one of the sheets quickly and noticed the very first part number wasn't one of ours and the second item number listed was for a kit that had no function or bearing on their search warrant. They agreed to fish those two items out of the van and sure enough, neither item was correct. One of them said words to the effect of, 'gee, we must have picked up the wrong box from your shelf.' They corrected their mistakes, asked for a recommendation for a good local restaurant and were on their way...
After they left, employees told me that they surrounded the building, watching all the entrances while they entered along with a New York state trooper for back-up. This show of force, while maybe necessary for raiding an underground drug lab, was hardly necessary. Our building is located in a typical suburban office park and our showroom is open to all.
What's incredible is that two of the agents were here a week earlier, pretending to be customers! This 'recon' obviously would have shown them that no force would be needed, let alone seven agents on a three hour travel time round trip. What's especially aggravating was that during the earlier visit they tried to lead one of my technical people into saying something they wanted to hear. Questions were posed like 'if we placed one of these little kits across the street in that building - for instance - could we hear it over here?' Our technician assured them that although the units work great for model rockets, toy cars and such, they really weren't suited for transmitting out of a building. Steel construction, reinforcing rod and the like limits range. They then asked if they could boost the power to do the job. Our fellow once again reiterated that the kits were hobby stuff and that what they wanted couldn't be found here. After the raid, my technician told me that they were here last week, playing 'customer' and how they had left unsatisfied.
So, where do we sit now? I have a Federal Small Business Innovation Grant underway that uses our little FM-5 wireless mike to transmit muscle sensor data to a nearby computer system. The doctors who are partners in the grant specified the FM-5 due to its small size; present technology uses a six pound transmitter that straps to the back of a child. Tough to do on a forty pound kid. The research is on walking disorders on crippled kids. Now what? Shall we violate their interpretation of the law and work with the doctors and the SBIR people? How about all the schools, scout troops and hobbyists who use our kits? We're not talking big money here. The kits amount to a small portion of our business, but what will these folks do now?
I have personally received mail from many who say that they are now graduate engineers as a direct result of one of our little kits sparking their interest in electronics. I guess the mobsters, terrorists and kidnappers don't feel the need to write, huh?
The Aftermath - and the Feds
The raid on Ramsey Electronics has caused quite a stir online, in Ramsey's own discussion forum as well as the submission queue here at Slashdot. People have gotten into intense discussions about freedom of information, freedom of speech, and the importance of using modern electronics in the field of education. At first glance, the raid may look like a cavalcade of constitutional rights issues, but Joel Violanti, the attorney prosecuting this case for the United States Customs Service, disagrees. Here's his take on the Ramsey raid:
What happened, Joel?
On November 10th, there were approximately 13 search warrants issued in New York City and Rochester, New York and Austin, Texas against companies believed to be in the business of selling electronic surreptitious intercept devices, in violation of federal law. Ramsey Electronics was one of those companies.
Apparently, Ramsey's been selling this equipment for a very long time. Why did the raid occur last year?
If something's illegal, it's illegal.
Is there any reason that Ramsey Electronics wasn't raided earlier?
Sometimes you can only act upon things when you're informed of them. There's a task force in New York City that's been investigating this for a few years now. They've been shutting down companies or preventing companies from selling these things, and they've been taking several criminal pleas because of this. These people have been pleading guilty in Federal court. San Francisco now has a task force. Other cities are joining in, trying to stop the manufacture and distribution of this equipment.
Where does it stop? It seems like I could build something like this on my own, and then be just as guilty.
The statute prohibits people from manufacturing and distributing these devices, knowing they've been shipped through the mail.
Where does the government draw the line at surreptitious use, as opposed to educational use?
I don't know how to answer that. Use is use. If you place a device in a clock, and you put that clock on the wall, and you monitor someone's conversation that you're not a part of, I think that surreptitious use speaks for itself. Clock, smoke detector, or picture frame, you're taking that device out of its primary use in order to secretly intercept someone else's conversation. We're not necessarily looking for kits or components. We're looking for items like clocks, smoke detectors and picture frames.
Mr. Violanti made it clear that the US Customs Service was not in any way attempting to 'crack down' on the hobbyist or educational use of electronic devices. The emphasis remains on specific items that fall under the category of surreptitious use. The specific items the feds were apparently looking for in the Ramsey raid were things like microphones and video cameras mounted inside smoke detectors or alarm clocks, effectively masquerading as something they weren't.
Despite Mr. Violanti's reasuurances, the Ramsey Electronics raid still leaves questions for innocent geeks who like to tinker with assorted electronic parts. What if, for instance, you build an alarm clock that will sense motion when it goes off, and will keep going off if it doesn't sense you getting out of bed and stops when you do? What if you rig your smoke detector with a video or audio system so that rescue workers can make sure your family gets out of your house safely in the event of a fire?
There are many uses for 'surveillance technology' other than listening in on boring conversations.
But even if you made these devices with the most innocent purposes in mind, and sold them through the U.S. Mail to people as innocent as yourself, it looks like the Federal Government would feel justified in taking them away from you just in case one of your customers decided to use one of your gadgets to break the law in some way.
It's a scary thought, isn't it?