Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recently introduced a bill, H.R. 3871, The Stingray Privacy Act (pdf), to limit the use of cellphone surveillance technology known as cell-site simulators or “Stingray” technology. The bill, Chaffetz says, “would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before deploying a cell site simulator consistent with recently issued federal guidance and the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. H.R. 3871 does provide targeted exceptions for exigent circumstances and foreign intelligence surveillance.” The federal guidance mentioned is recent policies on cell-site simulators released by the departments of Justice (pdf) and Homeland Security (pdf), with various exceptions for special circumstances. The new guidance was released after public and Congressional scrutiny of the use of the surveillance devices.
The Stingray and similar cellphone surveillance technologies are extremely invasive. They simulate a cellphone tower so that nearby mobile devices will connect to it and reveal their location, text messages, voice calls, and other personal data. The surveillance technology scoops up data on every cellphone within its range, so innocent people’s private conversations and texts are gathered, too.
Dozens of police departments nationwide use this cell-site simulator surveillance technology, and there are a lot of questions about how they’re using it. Even the IRS admitted in Congressional testimony that it using the surveillance technology.
The ACLU filed public records requests with various local law enforcement agencies and then sued to obtain the documents. What the documents revealed was startling. Documents showed that the U.S. Marshals Service directed Florida police to hide the use of Stingray surveillance technology from judges, which meant the police lied in court documents. Sarasota police Sgt. Kenneth Castro sent an e-mail in April 2009 to colleagues at the North Port (Florida) Police Department: “In reports or depositions we simply refer to the assistance as ‘received information from a confidential source regarding the location of the suspect.'”
The Associated Press obtained documents that showed the Baltimore Police Department had a nondisclosure agreement with the Justice Department about the use of the Stingray surveillance technology. The Baltimore police were not allowed to discuss the technology publicly and needed to keep it secret even in court proceedings.
A judge in Buffalo, N.Y., revealed that the FBI had instructed the Erie County Sheriff’s Office “to drop criminal charges instead of revealing ‘any information concerning the cell site simulator or its use,'” CNN reported in March. Previously, documents obtained by the ACLU had revealed that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office had used the Stingray surveillance devices 47 times over four years but only sought a court order once, even though the department had assured the public that it would only use the surveillance technology with a court order or warrant.
The secrecy involved is disturbing and would make it easy to abuse the technology and violate individuals’ privacy rights. It is important for there to be public accountability and a warrant requirement for use of the cellphone surveillance technology. It is important that federal officials and legislators are seeking to put limits on the use of cell-site simulator, or Stingray, surveillance technology. However, if law enforcement officials had been honest about their use of the cell-site technology earlier, we would already have laws and regulations in place to protect innocent individuals’ privacy rights while allowing legitimate law enforcement use of the technology.