Senators push feds to get warrants for cellphone spying

The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee want to expand the government’s commitment to obtaining a warrant before using controversial spying devices that pick up information from people’s cellphones.

Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyReport: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas Cotton not ruling out 2020 White House bid Ben Stein revives ‘Ferris Bueller’ role for Grassley ad MORE (R-Iowa) and top Democrat Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyReport: Investor visa program mainly funds wealthy areas Gretchen Carlson to testify before Congress Senior Verizon exec believes hack will affect Yahoo deal MORE (Vt.) on Tuesday asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to follow the Justice Department’s lead and commit to getting a warrant before using the “StingRay” devices.

If successful, the effort would represent a major victory for privacy advocates who have managed to shine a light on the little-known devices, which otherwise have been employed without a warrant. 

The StringRay or “IMSI Catcher” devices, which are about the size of a briefcase, mimic cellphone towers in order to collect signals sent by people’s devices. Those signals can reveal information about people’s location as well as unique identifier numbers and their emails and texts.

“While these devices can be useful tools for identifying the location of a suspect's cell phone or identifying an unknown cell phone, they also present significant privacy concerns because they gather information about the cell phones of many people who are not investigative targets but happen to be in the vicinity,” Grassley and Leahy wrote in their letter on Tuesday.

The Department of Homeland Security has given grants to state and local police departments to purchase the devices. Some departments have previously signed non-disclosure agreements to keep their use of the technology secret.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department declared that it would begin to require officials to obtain a warrant before using the technology, would ban them from intercepting emails or other communications for criminal investigations and delete old data once the target of a search is found. That announcement was the result of a months-long policy review at the department. 

Critics of the government’s use of the technology cheered the announcement, but also raised alarm about a series of exceptions.

In their letter on Tuesday, the pair of Senate lawmakers asked Johnson to “avoid any ill-defined and potentially overbroad exceptions to that warrant requirement,” such as those in the Justice Department’s guidance.