DOJ to require warrants for cell spying tech

DOJ to require warrants for cell spying tech
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The Justice Department on Thursday unveiled new privacy protections for controversial devices that mimic cellphone towers and allow the government to warrantlessly identify people and determine their location.

Under a new policy, government agents will have to obtain a warrant before using the devices, known as StingRays, and routinely delete the information they pick up.

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Additionally, the government will be banned from picking up people’s emails, photos or other communications for criminal investigations, and officials will have to undergo audits to make sure they are complying with the rules.

“This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a statement.

The StingRay devices — also known as cell-site simulators, IMSI catchers or dirtboxes — mimic cellphone towers in order to trick people’s devices into sending them information.

Those signals include unique identifying numbers of people’s devices, though the technology can also intercept emails, texts and other information.

By gauging the strength of a signal and the general direction of where it is coming from, the technology also allows officials to narrow in on someone’s location. 

The technology has been “instrumental in aiding law enforcement in a broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations and complicated narcotics cases,” Yates said.

Yet it has also outraged civil liberties advocates and become a worsening headache for the Obama administration on the heels of revelations that officials within the U.S. Marshals Service attached the machines to airplanes. That practice may violate the Constitution by picking up information about thousands of people on the ground, critics — including multiple members of Congress — have warned. 

The new government policy will require officials to obtain a search warrant before using the devices, except in some emergency cases, including immediate danger that someone will be killed, as well as efforts to tackle organized crime, some computer hacking and other instances.

Additionally, officials searching for or trying to identify a specific mobile device must delete all information as soon as that device is found or identified.

“We expect that agents will familiarize themselves with this policy and comply with all agency orders concerning the use of this technology,” the Justice Department said in its new guidance. 

Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyHollywood, DC come together for First Amendment-themed VIP party The Hill's 12:30 Report Lawmakers talk climate for Earth Day, Science March MORE (D-Vt.) who, in the past, has raised concerns about the technology, on Thursday said the department is “finally starting to catch up with the rapid advancement of this tracking technology.”

However, he also expressed “serious concerns” about the exceptions to the new warrant requirement and said he would “press the department to justify them.”

- Updated at 6:30 p.m.