Congress

House panel seeks new rules for Stingrays

Shutterstock image. 

A bipartisan report released Dec. 19 by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform calls for standards on when law enforcement agencies should be allowed to use cell-site simulation technology -- known as Stingrays -- and calls on one federal agency to retire its unused device.

This technology has been available for years and has met with harsh criticism from privacy advocates. The suitcase-sized devices are used to track mobile phone locations and unique identifiers by emitting a signal like a cell phone tower.

Law enforcement agencies often use Stingrays to track a specific known phone, but the technology also can be used to identify unknown devices using a known location. A report in Wired confirmed the American Civil Liberties Union claims that some devices have the ability to record calls and text messages if the proper approvals are given.

The Oversight report for the first time offers something like a census of Stingrays owned by the federal government. Finding out which law enforcement agencies currently have Stingray technology is notoriously difficult because of non-disclosure agreements that the FBI and the companies selling the device have asked users to sign.

The Department of Justice has 310 of the devices, while the Department of Homeland Security has 124. Together, the two federal law enforcement agencies spent just shy of $100 million on the devices between 2010 and 2014. The report found a wide variance on the price of individual devices, from $41,500 up to $500,000 for a single cell-site simulator.

The report also noted that the non-disclosure agreements were interpreted so strictly that the FBI could compel a local or state law enforcement entity to "dismiss a criminal case….rather than produce information that could compromise the devices."

The report advises that such non-disclosure agreements should be replaced with practices "of clarity and candor" toward the court when a Stingray is involved in a case. Law enforcement agencies should also be upfront about their use of the technology with the court, the report recommends.

The new report raises constitutional questions over the standard of evidence typically required to deploy these devices, and discusses their potential to infringe on first and fourth amendement rights. It calls on Congress to pass legislation that would set up a legal framework establishing when law enforcement agencies can obtain and use geolocation data in an investigation.

The report singled out the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration for being the only office of inspector general, out of 24 federal agencies queried by the Committee, to have Stingray technology. The TIGTA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the device but has never used it, according to the report.

"Given the amount of money spent, the fact that no other IG owns a device, and the device has not been used, TIGTA should strongly consider decommissioning the device it has and agree to not acquire any cell-site simulators in the future," the report reads.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee began looking into Stingray technology more than a year ago when its Information Technology Subcommittee held a hearing on the subject.

This October, a group of U.S. Senators asked Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to answer questions about complaints that Stingray use might violate the Communications Act.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


Featured

  • Cybersecurity

    DHS floats 'collective defense' model for cybersecurity

    Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wants her department to have a more direct role in defending the private sector and critical infrastructure entities from cyberthreats.

  • Defense
    Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies at an April 12 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

    Mattis: Cloud deal not tailored for Amazon

    On Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought to quell "rumors" that the Pentagon's planned single-award cloud acquisition was designed with Amazon Web Services in mind.

  • Census
    shutterstock image

    2020 Census to include citizenship question

    The Department of Commerce is breaking with recent practice and restoring a question about respondent citizenship last used in 1950, despite being urged not to by former Census directors and outside experts.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.