Chairman: FCC has minimal jurisdiction over surveillance tool

Chairman: FCC has minimal jurisdiction over surveillance tool

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lacks oversight of so-called stingray surveillance devices once they are in the hands of law enforcement, Commissioner Tom Wheeler said Thursday. 

Wheeler said the commission certifies the devices, which collect location information from cellphones, if they are being made for law enforcement use. 

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"And then from that point on, its usage was a matter of law enforcement, not a matter of the technological question of whether or not the piece of hardware interfered with other [radio frequency] devices," he said. 

Lawmakers and privacy advocates have raised concerns for years about the small devices, which mimic cellphone towers in order to trick phones into relaying their signal to them. More questions have been raised recently amid a series of headlines about law enforcement's wide use of the devices, including a program that attaches them to airplanes to cover huge areas. 

Wheeler did say the commission could have authority over the "unauthorized use" of the device, such as one that was sold illegally outside law enforcement circles. 

"I think that we would have enforcement jurisdiction on an unauthorized use of an RF device if in fact it were being used illegally," he said. 

Lawmakers have increasingly warned that the government's use of the surveillance tool in the United States could violate the Constitution. 

In February, Sen. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.) sent a letter to Wheeler asking about the certification process and the results of an FCC task force convened too explore the topic. 

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) questioned Wheeler over the program Thursday, expressing grave concern that the public does not have more information about the program. 

"The task force did look into the situation," Wheeler said Thursday. "And what we found was as follows: That our jurisdiction and our authority is to certify the electronics of the RF components of such devices for interferences questions. And that if the application was being made in conjunction with law enforcement, then we would approve it. This is for the technology, this is not for who buys it."