DOJ adds warrant requirement to Stingray use

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Federal law enforcement officials will no longer be able to nab mobile phone use information using cell-site interceptors without a warrant in criminal cases, a new Justice Department policy memo declares.

Those interceptors or International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers, popularly known by the trade name Stingray, enable users to pull location data on mobile phones and devices by using unique identifier information. Users can also obtain information about unknown phones when the devices are deployed in close physical proximity to a target.

Essentially, Stingrays capture data from mobile devices by appearing to be an ordinary cell tower.

According to the Sept. 3 memo, law enforcement use of Stingrays is limited to capturing information on the senders and recipients of calls, texts and email messages, not the content of the communications themselves. The new policy requires that federal law enforcement agents obtain a search warrant before using a Stingray, except in exigent or exceptional circumstances.

The policy does not extend to state and local law enforcement, except in cases when they are using federal equipment in collaborative investigations. It also does not apply to the FBI's authority to collect national security information under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The policy requires new standards of training for Stingray operators and mandates that equipment be wiped of old data before the start of new missions. Data collected on non-target devices must be scrubbed every 30 days, if not more frequently.

Law enforcement's use of the devices had been kept quiet until a 2012 lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center resulted in the disclosure that the FBI had been using the suitcase-sized devices extensively during investigations without obtaining court orders to do so.

In response to the disclosures, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle -- notably Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- complained about the lack of controls on the use of Stingrays by law enforcement.

Leahy called Justice's recent policy announcement a welcome step forward but said he had "serious questions about the exceptions to the warrant requirement that are set forth in this new policy, and I will press the department to justify them."

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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