Federal lawmakers have introduced a new bill that would require state and local law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before they could use stingray surveillance devices.
The Cell-Site Simulator Act of 2015, also known as the Stingray Privacy Act, was introduced in response to a new Justice Department policy, announced last month, requiring all federal agencies to obtain a search warrant before using stingrays—devices that simulate a cell phone tower in order to track the location of mobile phone users.
The new policy forces prosecutors and investigators not only to obtain a warrant but also to disclose to judges that the specific technology they plan to use is a stingray, as opposed to some other surveillance tool.
Civil liberties groups had criticized the federal policy because it covers only agencies like the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, and Drug Enforcement Agency—while failing to address state and local police and sheriff’s departments, who use the technology extensively, and often borrow the devices from federal agencies.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced the bill in the House of Representatives on Monday to close that loophole. Co-sponsors include House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vermont).
Law enforcement agencies throughout the US have been criticized for using the powerful technology without a warrant, and for deceiving judges about the nature of the technology they were using to track suspects. Often these agencies would tell courts that they planned to use a pen-register or trap-and-trace device to obtain location data on a suspect, rather than a stingray, which is much more invasive.
Stingrays are mobile surveillance systems the size of a small briefcase that emit a signal that is stronger than the signal of legitimate cell towers in their vicinity in order to force mobile phones and other devices to establish a connection with them and reveal their unique ID. Stingrays can then determine the direction from which the phone connected with them, data that authorities can then use to track the movement of the phone as it continuously connects to the fake tower.
Traditional law enforcement agencies aren’t the only authorities using stingrays. The Internal Revenue Service also possesses and uses the controversial surveillance equipment for criminal investigations, according to a recent story from the Guardian.
Civil liberties groups have long asserted that stingrays are too invasive because they can sweep up data about every phone in their vicinity, not just targeted phones. The new DoJ policy announced last month addresses this issue of over-collection in part by requiring federal law enforcement agents to delete all data the stingray collects “as soon as” it has located the specific device it’s tracking.
But stingrays have other problems as well. Depending on how they’re configured, can also be used to intercept the content of text messages and phone calls. And because of the catch-and-release way stingrays work—they force devices to connect to them then release them to connect to a legitimate cell tower once the stingray has identified the device’s unique ID—they can interrupt the cell phone service of any mobile device in their vicinity.
Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies have long refused to confirm that the devices can interrupt cell service for anyone in their vicinity. But earlier this year, FBI Special Agent Michael A. Scimeca confirmed the disruptive capability to a judge while submitting a warrant application requesting approval to use a stingray.
The new DoJ policy allows for exigent circumstances or exceptional circumstances, whereby law enforcement agents can use stingrays without a search warrant in emergency situations, when obtaining a warrant is not practical. But the DoJ will be required to track and report the number of times the technology is deployed under these exceptions.
The new bill introduced this week includes the same exigent circumstances for state and local law enforcement agencies that use stingrays.
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