Congress

Senators want FCC inquiry into Stingray use

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Several Democratic senators want the Federal Communications Commission to determine whether law enforcement agencies' use of cell-site simulators is disrupting regular phone service.

The portable devices, often referred to as Stingrays, mimic the action of a cellular network tower to capture mobile call data. Police and other investigators use them to intercept mobile phone communications by suspected criminals.

Multiple complaints filed with the Federal Communications Commission allege that Stingray use might violate the Communications Act and could potentially disrupt emergency phone calls.

In an Oct. 6 letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the senators referenced complaints that "cell site simulators' disruption of cell phones' ability to make and receive calls, possibly including calls to 911 and other emergency responders, constitutes 'willful' interference with a communications network, which is prohibited by Section 333 of the Communications Act."

The letter was signed by Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and eight other lawmakers.

The senators said they appreciate and understand that Stingray devices can help law enforcement agencies "locate and track dangerous suspects," but those efforts should not "come at the expense of innocent Americans' privacy and safety."

The lawmakers requested answers to 10 questions, including details on whether law enforcement agencies need FCC licensing to use the devices, whether the FCC maintains any authority over their range and power, whether the FCC knows about efforts by law enforcement to minimize interference in areas surveilled by Stingrays and whether there are any negative impacts from their use that "disproportionately harm communities of color."

The New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute is one of the organizations that has filed complaints about the devices. Eric Null, the institute's policy counsel, responded to the lawmakers' letter by saying, "We are pleased to see the senators call attention to such an important issue and to seek definitive answers to questions about secretive Stingray surveillance technology."

About the Author

Aisha Chowdhry is a former staff writer for FCW.


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