ACLU urges FCC to crack down on cellphone trackers

ACLU urges FCC to crack down on cellphone trackers
© Thinkstock

Two nonprofits are urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to crack down on covert cellphone trackers.
 
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights group, filed an FCC complaint Thursday in which they attempt to illustrate the danger of cellphone tracking technology used by police.
 

ADVERTISEMENT

Cell-site simulators, covert tracking technology also referred to as “stingrays,” are employed by law enforcement agencies to gain location data from cellphones. The technology can also be used to peer into a phone user's text and calls, something enforcement agencies have denied doing.
The ACLU and several other groups had also filed a joint complaint in August, urging the FCC to look into the Baltimore Police Department’s use of the technology. The groups complained that the Baltimore force’s use of stingrays violated the FCC’s Communication Act, which says it is illegal for state and local law enforcement to jam or interfere with cellphone signals. The FCC had said that it was looking into the complaint.

The most recent complaint said other police departments around the country, including in New York and Oakland, have engaged in similar activities in violation of the Communication Act.

The filing claimed that Americans often don’t have adequate protections against cell-site simulators.

“The extreme secrecy surrounding use of cell site simulators has stymied effective oversight and left Americans’ cellular communications without sufficient protections against interference,” the filing reads. “We are aware only of a handful of jurisdictions where lawmakers and the public have been presented with any information about cell site simulators prior to purchase or use.”

The FCC told The Hill it will review the filing.

“The Commission expects state and local law enforcement to work through the appropriate legal processes to use these devices,” spokesman Neil Grace said in a statement.

The New York Police Department defended its frequent use of cell-site simulators in an email to The Hill.

“This technology has been used previously to find victims of kidnappings or those who expressed suicidal tendencies,” a representative from the NYPD said.

The department also said it obtains permission to use stingrays through the proper legal channels.

“The NYPD, before using this technology, ensures we have established probable cause, consults with a District Attorney, and applies for a court order, which must be approved by a judge. In rare instances, the NYPD may use this technology in emergency situations while we seek judicial approval,” the department representative said. “This would be in instances where the life or safety of someone is at risk.”

The New York Times reported, however, that the NYPD had used the technology for cases with crimes like identity theft, larceny and money laundering. The NYPD did not answer a follow-up question about the report.

The ACLU said it has found, “66 state and local law enforcement agencies in 23 states and the District of Columbia that own cell-site simulators,” noting that stingrays in these departments were often used “with frequency.”