The federal government's law enforcement agency has launched a review of its surreptitious use of cell phone surveillance devices, considered by some lawmakers and privacy advocates to be intrusive and unconstitutional.
Known as Stingrays or cell site simulators, these tracking devices work by imitating a cell phone tower and forcing nearby mobile phones to connect, offering law enforcement the phone's location and other unique identifying information. The FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and various local police departments use Stingrays to track criminal activity. But the rules surrounding their deployment — such as whether they require a warrant — have been inconsistently enforced.
"With regard to this particular technology, the Department of Justice is in the process of examining its policies to ensure they reflect the department's continuing commitment to conducting its vital missions while according appropriate respect for privacy and civil liberties," Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, told BuzzFeed News.
News of the Justice Department's review was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, which also reports that senior officials have decided to be "more forthcoming about how and why the devices are used."
Critics of the DOJ's Stingray surveillance programs, including the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue that Stingrays are an invasion of privacy that may facilitate or mask police abuse and violations of due process.
"We're not just worried about how invasive these devices can be but also that the government has been less than forthright with judges about how and when they use [Stingrays]," the EFF wrote in a blog post earlier this year.
The Justice Department's review comes after revelations exposing the secrecy surrounding the use of Stingrays. Last month, during a criminal trial in Baltimore, Detective Emmanuel Cabreja presented a nondisclosure agreement that revealed the FBI explicitly encourages prosecutors to drop charges in cases rather than share information with the court about cell site simulators.
According to critics, this nondisclosure agreement points to the great lengths federal law enforcement agencies are willing to go in order to keep cell phone surveillance programs secret, and thus, the need for review.
"Federal law enforcement's move toward using warrants for this invasive technology is long overdue, as is the promise of increased transparency," Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU attorney, told BuzzFeed News. "However, the suggestion that the Department of Justice is slow-walking its release of basic and accurate information about Stingray use in order to shield constitutional violations in ongoing cases is disturbing," he said.
The DOJ's review also follows pressure from members of Congress. "It seems clear to me that law enforcement and our intelligence agencies have blurred the line between the constitutional rights of Americans and the programs that they are executing." Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, and a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told BuzzFeed News.
In a recent letter from the Oversight Committee, chair Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, also expressed concern with the Justice Department's lack of clear rules and uniformity surrounding Stingray.
The committee asked that the Justice Department turn over its policy guidelines on cell phone surveillance as well as a detailed inventory on the number of cell site simulators in use, their cost, and a list of alleged abuses by May 8.
"DOJ's announcement is welcome news and frankly long overdue," Rep. Chaffetz told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "In this digital age it is vital that we strike the right balance between personal privacy and national security. The Oversight Committee will continue its bipartisan investigation into the use of these devices, and I look forward to working with DOJ in that process."
Hamza Shaban is a technology policy reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hamza Shaban at Hamza.Shaban@buzzfeed.com.
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