Judiciary presses FBI on cellphone spying

Judiciary presses FBI on cellphone spying
© Greg Nash

The leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee are pressing the Obama administration for more information about a program that collects Americans’ cellphone data using technology that mimics cellular towers.

Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine On The Money: Trump delays increase in China tariffs until Oct. 15 | Treasury says US deficit topped trillion in 11 months | Defense spending bill advances over Democratic wall objections MORE (D-Vt.) and ranking Republican Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest Grassley'Mike Pounce' trends on Twitter after Trump slip at GOP retreat Cruz warns GOP support for expanded background checks could help elect Warren president Lawmakers applaud Trump's ban on flavored e-cigarettes MORE (R-Iowa) revealed Wednesday that the FBI recently changed its legal policy when seeking court approval to deploy the technology. 

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"We are concerned about whether the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have adequately considered the privacy interests of other individuals who are not the targets of the interception," they wrote in the letter addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson.

While the updated policy now requires a search warrant, both senators expressed concern about exceptions to that rule. The letter does not outline the previously legal policy or when, specifically, it changed. 

Their staff learned about the update during a recent briefing that took place after June.  

The FBI does not need a warrant to deploy the technology, the senators noted, if the case involves imminent danger, a fugitive or if the technology is used in public places where there is "no reasonable expectation of privacy."

"We have concerns about the scope of the exceptions," they wrote in the letter sent last week but revealed publicly Wednesday. 

Their staffs have been briefed on the topic twice since June, when they first raised concerns. Questions remain, however, how other agencies in the Justice and Homeland Security departments use and get authorization to deploy the technology, the senators said. 

In November, The Wall Street Journal reported on a U.S. Marshals Service program that started in 2007 and operates planes from at least five airports that can cover nearly the entire United States. The small planes are equipped with technology — dubbed '"dirt boxes" — that trick cellphones into transmitting their signal to them.

A cellphone’s general location and identifying information is swept up, according to the report. The program is aimed at locating individuals who are being investigated by the government, but information from the general population is swept up as well. The Journal reported the technology "lets go" of information from cellphones not linked to suspects.

Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have also raised concerns about the surveillance program.