National Security

GOP chairman joins with Dems on bill to limit cellphone spying

The Republican head of the House Oversight Committee is teaming up with a pair of Democrats to try to enact new limits on the government’s use of controversial cellphone-tracking technology.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) on Monday introduced the Stingray Privacy Act to prevent federal, state and local government agencies from using the briefcase-sized devices without a warrant. 

{mosads}The Stingray devices are also known as IMSI-catchers and cell-site simulators. They mimic cellphone towers in order to pick up identifying waves from people’s phones that contain information about their contacts, text messages and other data.

“The abuse of Stingrays and other cell-site simulators by individuals, including law enforcement, could enable gross violations of privacy,” Chaffetz said in a statement on Monday.

Reps. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) had signed on as original co-sponsors, he said.

Mounting scrutiny of the government’s often-secret use of Stingray devices has prompted outrage from civil liberties advocates. Agents using the devices can pick up reams of data from unsuspecting targets, critics say, including bystanders who are not being intentionally targeted.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 13 federal agencies use the technology — including the IRS, FBI and National Security Agency — as do state or local police in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

“The fact that law enforcement agencies, and non-law enforcement agencies such as the IRS, have invested in these devices raises serious questions about who is using this technology and why,” Chaffetz said. “These questions demonstrate the need for strict guidelines that carry the weight of the law.”

Under Chaffetz’s bill, people using a cell-site simulator illegally could face up to a decade in prison.

The legislation has exceptions to the warrant requirement for emergency situations and foreign intelligence investigations. 

In September, the Justice Department unveiled a policy requiring its officials to obtain a warrant before using Stingrays. That policy could be easily overturned, however, and does not apply to other federal agencies or state and local police.

Unlike the new bill, the Justice Department’s policy also forced it to delete old and irrelevant data.

Tags IMSI-catcher Jason Chaffetz John Conyers Peter Welch Stingray

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