IRS confirms use of surveillance tool

Greg Nash

The head of the IRS told lawmakers on Tuesday that his agency’s use of secretive phone-tracking technology was restricted to specific criminal cases, a day after new questions were raised about its surveillance powers.

Before the Senate Finance Committee, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said that use of the StingRay devices, or “IMSI-catchers,”  is limited to the agency's criminal investigations division to track down money laundering, terrorism and financing of organized crime.

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“It’s only used in criminal investigations. It can only be used with a court order. It can only be used based on probable cause of criminal activity,” Koskinen told the Senate panel.

“It is not used in civil matters at all,” he added. “It’s not used by other employees of the IRS.”

The IRS’s previously unknown use of the technology was revealed on Monday by the Guardian. The newspaper reported that the agency spent more than $70,000 in 2012 to upgrade and train employees on the technology, which are also used by a dozen other federal agencies.

The briefcase-sized StingRay device mimics cellphone towers in order to collect identifying data sent through waves emitted from people’s phones, including their location.  

“What it does is primarily allow you to see point-to-point where communications are taking place,” Koskinen said. “It does not allow you to overhear — the technique doesn’t — of voice communications.

“You may pick up texting,” he acknowledged, “but I would stress: it follows the Justice Department rules, it requires a court order and it requires probable cause with regard to criminal investigations.”

Scrutiny over the government’s use of the cellphone tracking tools has ramped up in recent months as the public has learned how widespread their use is among government agencies. In addition to the federal government, state and local police in 22 states and the District of Columbia have been known to own or use the technology, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Obviously the IRS has an important role to play in combating money laundering and drug trafficking and international tax dodging,” said Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenIRS inversion rules face blowback Senate faces critical vote on Puerto Rico Reid backs House Puerto Rico bill MORE (D-Ore.), a privacy hawk who pressed Koskinen about his agency’s use of the technology on Tuesday.

“I view, however, that enforcement and protection of personal privacy must not be mutually exclusive," Wyden added. "We’ve got to have both.”

In response to the growing scrutiny, the Justice Department this summer unveiled a new policy with limits on how officials can use the technology and keep the data that it turns up.