States Requiring Fed Enforcement Agencies to Get Warrant to Use STINGRAY Eavesdropping Devices
Covert Electronic Surveillance Prompts Calls for TransparencyLaw enforcement officials across the United States have become enamored of the StingRay, an electronic surveillance device that can covertly track criminal suspects and is being used with little public disclosure and often under uncertain legal authority. Now, though, some states are pushing back, and are requiring the police to get a court order and local consent before turning to the high-tech tool.
Washington, Utah and Virginia recently approved laws requiring court orders for the use of such cell-site simulators by state and local police officers. California lawmakers this month approved such legislation by a wide margin. The California law would also require police agencies to get City Council approval before employing the devices, and to disclose on an agency website that they use the technology. Similar bills have been introduced in Texas and in Congress.
In Maryland, defense lawyers are re-examining thousands of cases to determine if the police have been deploying the technology legally.
“The public has finally become aware of what sorts of technologies are being used, and they are asking themselves, ‘Do we want to pay for this?’ and second, ‘What are the costs of this to our civil liberties?’ ” said Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who studies privacy issues. “People do care about privacy. And it is reassuring that the system is working the way it’s supposed to — instead of law enforcement just saying, ‘The rules have changed when it comes to digital.’ ”
StingRays, one of several brands of such devices, are about the size of a suitcase. They mimic cellphone towers by forcing mobile phones in their vicinity to connect to the device, which allows the police to find the person with the phone.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement officials say the devices are critical in locating dangerous criminal suspects. But the devices, which cost as much as $500,000, also collect data from all other cellphones in the area, whether those phones are on or off, without notifying phone users.