National Security

IRS owned phone-spying technology

The IRS spent tens of thousands of dollars on controversial technology that tracks people by their cellphone, according to government documents revealed on Monday.

The heavily redacted documents obtained by The Guardian show that the tax agency spent more than $70,000 on upgrading and training the devices — known as StingRays, IMSI-catchers or “cell site simulators” — in 2012, the newspaper reported.

{mosads}The briefcase-sized devices mimic cellphone towers and pick up signals sent by people’s phones to reveal their location. Those signals can include identifying information about who owns the phone and can also contain a list of people’s contacts, messages or other personal content.

The IRS had not previously been known to use the technology. It remains unclear whether or how it used the device.

Its name adds to a growing list of government agencies that have used the devices, much to the chagrin of civil liberties advocates.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, a dozen other federal agencies are known to have used the technology, including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the National Security Agency. Additionally, state or local police in 22 states and the District of Columbia have also owned the devices, according to the civil liberties groups.

Federal and local officers rarely needed to acquire a warrant to use a StingRay to track a suspect, and have maintained a vigilant secrecy surrounding their use of the devices.

In September, however, the Justice Department changed course and revealed a new policy requiring federal officials to obtain a warrant before using the technology and routinely delete the information they pick up. Some privacy advocates have nonetheless expressed concern about the exceptions to the government’s new rules.

The Justice Department policy followed a series of stories raising concerns about the devices.

A U.S. Marshals Service program uncovered by The Wall Street Journal last year routinely attached the devices to airplanes and picked up information from thousands of people down below.

Tags IMSI-catcher IRS Stingray
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