Feds Change Policy to Require Warrant for Use of Stingrays

CCIPS Cybercrime Unit

The Department of Justice has established a new policy that requires federal law enforcement agents–and state and local agencies working with the department–to obtain search warrants in order to use Stingray devices.

The Department of Justice has established a new policy that requires federal law enforcement agents–and state and local agencies working with the department–to obtain search warrants in order to use Stingray devices. The change is a major one, as agents will now need to show probable cause before deploying one of the devices, which simulate cell towers and can identify phones and collect communications.

Privacy advocates and security experts have applauded the new policy, saying it provides important protections for users. In addition to the new requirement for a warrant, the new policy from Justice also says that cell-site simulators, as they’re known generically, “may not be used to collect the contents of any communication in the course of criminal investigations.” The devices have the capability to collect emails, texts, and other data from phones that connect to them, but Justice’s policy now prohibits agents from using that functionality. 

Cell-site simulators are used by a number of law enforcement agencies to locate specific known cell phones. They work by pretending to be cell towers and allowing phones to connect to them. This enables the operators to identify specific phones and track their locations. Many civil liberties organizations and privacy advocates have criticized the way Stingrays are used, especially the fact that their use didn’t require a warrant and could be attached to a non-disclosure agreement.

“With the issuance of this policy, the Department of Justice reaffirms its commitment to hold itself to the highest standards as it performs its critical work to protect public safety,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates. “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. This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.”

The new policy goes into effect immediately, and lawyers at the EFF, who have challenged the use of Stingrays over the years, said the change was a major step for the government.

“Until recently, law enforcement’s use of Stingrays has been shrouded in an inexplicable and indefensible level of secrecy. At the behest of the FBI, state law enforcement agencies have been bound by non-disclosure agreements intended to shield from public scrutiny all details about the technical capabilities and even model numbers of the devices,” Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the EFF, said in a post.

“Law enforcement has gone to extreme lengths to protect even the most basic information about them, even dropping charges rather than answering judges’ questions about them. Although today’s policy changes don’t directly affect the non-disclosure agreements already in place, the tone of the announcement, along with a clarification from May, gives us hope that more transparency is on the way.”

Cardozo points out, however, hat the change in policy is not a new law. Also, agents can use Stingrays in national security investigations without a warrant. And there are a couple of exceptions to the warrant requirement, including one for “exceptional circumstances”, which Cardozo says is undefined in the guidance.

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