Oversight panel calls for tougher rules on using cellphone tracking Stingrays

Greg Nash

A bipartisan House Oversight report is questioning the transparency and constitutionality of law enforcement’s use of controversial cellphone trackers and calling for new rules.

At issue are devices that mimic cellphone towers and allow law enforcement to covertly surveil cellphone metadata. That data include what numbers a phone calls or texts and where that phone travels.  

“[A]bsent proper oversight and safeguards the domestic use of cell-site simulators may well infringe upon the constitutional rights of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the right to free association,” reads the report, co-authored by Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). 

The devices work by posing as cell towers and capture data in real time as soon as a suspect connects to them. They sift through the data to identify phones through their International Mobile Subscriber Identity numbers, which gives them their technical name, IMSI catchers. The devices, though, are referred to by many by a popular brand name, Stingray.  

The Oversight report, titled “Law Enforcement Use of Cell-Site Simulation Technologies: Privacy Concerns and Recommendations,” notes the chaotic, varying standards of IMSI catcher use. In most states, there are no official standards for whether or not the devices require a warrant. 

{mosads}One recommendation of the report is that federal and state legislators define rules for the devices. Another is all law enforcement agencies follow the Department of Justice’s standard of getting a warrant in all but exigent circumstances. 

The report also advocates for doing away with the nondisclosure agreements manufacturers and the FBI have forced police departments to sign, which has led to situations where officers aren’t able to testify in court about investigations. 

The secrecy makes it hard to get a handle on how widespread their use is. But the report gives some statistics. Including $1.8 million in grants to local law enforcement, the federal government has spent nearly $100 million on IMSI-catching devices. 

No one knows the amount of money states and cities spend on the devices out of their own budgets. 

“Transparency and accountability are therefore critical to ensuring that when domestic law enforcement decides to use these devices on American citizens, the devices are used in a manner that meets the requirements and protections of the Constitution,” reads the report. 

This story was updated at 1:10 p.m.

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