US Department of Justice agents now have to acquire a search warrant before utilizing a cell-site simulator, the department said, though the new policy allows for exceptions. The devices, known as ‘Stingrays,’ trick phones into connecting to them.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Thursday that while the department’s agents have followed “appropriate legal authorizations” for cell-site simulators in the past, effective immediately, federal agencies must now get a search warrant supported by probable cause before using a cell-site simulator.
The Harris Corporation’s ‘Stingray’ is the most well-known brand of the controversial spying technology, used by the FBI, the Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and many state and local police agencies. By impersonating cell towers, the suitcase-sized devices force phones in the area to broadcast information that can be used to identify and locate users. The devices are able to indiscriminately collect and intercept data from hundreds of phones at once.
The new policy does allow federal agencies to skirt those rules in the case of “dire circumstances,” such as when agents are attempting to avoid a death or injury, to keep a cellphone or other device they are tracking from being destroyed, or when a pursued criminal is in danger of escaping. Agents will be required to note how many times those exceptions are used so that they can be part of an audit at a later date.
The policy says federal agents cannot collect content from phones, including email, text messages, or GPS data, but they can monitor the general location of a tracked device. All data gathered and used to locate a device must be deleted as soon as it’s located, or no less than once per day.
“Cell-site simulator technology has been instrumental in aiding law enforcement in a broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations and complicated narcotics cases,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates in announcing the new guidance. “This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.”
The guidance only applies to federal law enforcement, not state or local policing agencies, which have increasingly turned to Stingrays, not just for high-profile terror plots or other major criminal cases, but for routine police investigations.