Criminal Justice

DOJ says using stingrays to intercept cellphone calls requires warrant, unless exception applies

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cellphone tower

Stingray devices obtain cellphone location information by imitating a cellphone tower. Image from Shutterstock.

New U.S. Department of Justice guidelines announced Thursday say warants are needed to use Stingrays and other cell-site simulators to intercept cellphone data and place limits on the information that can be collected.

However, the guidelines also say that the warrant requirement doesn’t apply under “exigent circumstances” and “exceptional circumstances,” CNN reports.

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that the technology, which obtains cellphone location information by imitating a cellphone tower, is being used in at least 21 states and the District of Columbia.

The new policy, which is the first of its kind, applies to federal law enforcement agencies, the Associated Press reports. It will not apply to state and local law enforcement, unless they are working in conjunction with federal agencies.

There is no question that cell-site simulators are a useful law enforcement tool. However, privacy advocates object to the government using individuals’ cellphones as personal tracking devices and point out that third-party information of innocent people is gathered along with information on targets.

“Cell-site simulators are a really critical tool for us that we use in a variety of contexts,” said deputy attorney general Sally Quillian Yates in a Thursday media briefing. “It’s an important tool in finding fugitives and finding kidnapping victims and drug cases. But we also recognize that the public has a real privacy interest and concern here so we have tried to craft a policy that is mindful of all of those interests and have attempted to strike the right balance.”

A lawyer for the ACLU called the new policy a positive first step but said more needs to be done to protect Americans from intrusive government monitoring.

“After decades of secrecy in which the government hid this surveillance technology from courts, defense lawyers, and the American public, we are happy to see that the Justice Department is now willing to openly discuss its policies,” said staff attorney Nathan Freed Wessler in an ACLU press release.

However, he called for the DOJ to close “loopholes” in its policy, such as not requiring state and local agencies who used federal funds to purchase cell-site simulators to follow federal guidelines. Additionally, “Congress should act,” he said, “to pass more comprehensive legislation to ensure that Americans’ privacy is protected from these devices and other location tracking technologies.”

The New York Times (reg. req.) and Reuters also have stories.

Related coverage: “Justice Department to review federal use of stingray devices” “Police increasingly using stingray cellphone tracking technology to solve routine crimes”

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