US Magistrate Judge Iain Johnston of Illinois recently announced three new requirements for government agencies that wish to deploy cell-site simulators, also known as Stingrays. For the moment, the order only applies to law enforcement agencies under the jurisdiction of Judge Johnston’s court in the Northern District of Illinois.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes Stingrays as:
A brand name of an IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) Catcher targeted and sold to law enforcement. A Stingray works by masquerading as a cellphone tower – to which your mobile phone sends signals to every 7 to 15 seconds whether you are on a call or not – and tricks your phone into connecting to it.
As a result, the government can figure out who, when and to where you are calling, the precise location of every device within the range, and with some devices, even capture the content of your conversations.
During proceedings for an ongoing drug case, Judge Johnston issued three new requirements for prosecutors to fulfill before he will sign off on the future use of mass surveillance devices. The requirements are aimed at protecting the privacy of innocent individuals who may have their information collected via Stingray during the course of an investigation.
Judge Johnston’s requirements call on government agents to obtain a warrant, and not to make use of the devices when “an inordinate number of innocent third parties’ information will be collected.” This could include any large public event. The judge also requires the government to “immediately destroy” unrelated data within 48 hours and prove to the court the information has been deleted.
Judge Johnston’s final requirement states that officers cannot use the collected data in any way beyond what is necessary to determine the cell phone information of the target. In a powerful condemnation of the Stingray devices, Johnston states:
“A cell-site simulator is simply too powerful of a device to be used and the information captured by it too vast to allow its use without specific authorization from a fully informed court. Minimizing procedures, such as the destruction of private information the United States has no right to keep, are necessary to protect the goals of the Fourth Amendment.”
“As I’m sure you know, applications for court orders for Stingrays have often been fairly misleading, so as not to disclose that the devices being used,” Rachel Levinson-Waldman, an attorney and legal scholar at New York University, told Ars Technica. “So I think this is the first time, or close to it, that a judge has had a chance to address them directly in a published order. That alone is striking.”
Levinson-Waldman also said she believes the judge is using the order to “urge other judges to take the time to understand what stingrays really are.”
The secrecy surrounding the use of these devices has been a contentious topic of debate for several years. However, the use of open records requests and Freedom of Information Act requests has helped paint a clearer picture of how the tools are employed by local, state, and federal agencies.
Truth In Media recently reported that four members of the House Oversight Committee sent letters to 24 federal agencies including the Department of State and the Securities and Exchange Commission, demanding answers regarding policies for using the controversial surveillance technology.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, ranking member Elijah Cummings, and Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), members of the committee’s IT subcommittee, issued requests for information related to the potential use of stingrays, also known as cell-site simulators.
Chaffetz also recently introduced the Stingray Privacy Act, which would expand newly established warrant requirements for the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to all federal, state, and local agencies that use the cell-site simulators.
In September, the DHS joined the DOJ by announcing warrant requirements for the use of stingray equipment, but the rule changes have come under fire for possible loopholes which may allow the continued use of surveillance equipment without a warrant.