Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cellphone surveillance device under scrutiny

The Washington Post recently wrote about a sophisticated surveillance device used by law enforcement without a warrant. The device known as a StingRay, simulates a cellphone tower and enables agents to collect the serial numbers of individual cellphones and then locate them.

Although law enforcement officials can employ StingRays and similar devices to locate suspects, privacy groups and some judges have raised concerns that the technology is so invasive — in some cases effectively penetrating the walls of homes — that its use should require a warrant.

The practice was disclosed last week in documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California — in a glimpse into a technology that federal agents rarely discuss publicly.

According to the Post, there are two issues: whether federal agents are informing courts when seeking permission to monitor suspects, and whether they are providing enough evidence to justify the use of a tool that sweeps up data not only from a suspect’s wireless device but also from those of bystanders in the vicinity.

The Justice Department has generally maintained that a warrant based on probable cause is not needed to use a “cell-site simulator” because the government is not employing them to intercept conversations, former officials said. But some judges around the country have disagreed and have insisted investigators first obtain a warrant.

Chris Soghoian, the ACLU’s principal technologist, said cell-site simulators are being used by local, state and federal authorities.

“No matter how the StingRay is used — to identify, locate or intercept — they always send signals through the walls of homes,” which should trigger a warrant requirement, Soghoian told the Post. “The signals always penetrate a space protected by the Fourth Amendment.”

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