THE GOVERNMENT’S USE of controversial stingray devices just got a little more stringent and transparent—at least at the federal level.
On Thursday the Justice Department announced a new and long-overdue policy requiring the FBI and other federal agents to obtain a search warrant before using stingrays—devices that simulate a cell phone tower in order to track the location of mobile phone users.
The new policy forces prosecutors and investigators not only to obtain a warrant but also to disclose to judges that the specific technology they plan to use is a stingray, as opposed to another surveillance tool.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the US have been criticized for using the powerful technology without a warrant, and for deceiving judges about the nature of the technology they were using to track suspects—telling courts that they planned to use a pen-register or trap-and-trace device to obtain location data on a suspect, rather than a stingray, which is much more invasive. The Justice Department, however, appeared to deny that prosecutors and federal investigators have been using the devices without a warrant in its announcement today.
“While the department has, in the past, obtained appropriate legal authorizations to use cell-site simulators, law enforcement agents must now obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause before using a cell-site simulator.”