sting ray tracking
Photo: AP/NPR

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Thursday that it will now require U.S. prosecutors and some federal law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant in order to use cellphone tracking technology.

In a statement, the DoJ said that the new policy “goes into effect immediately” and will “provide department components with standard guidance for the use of cell-site simulators in the department’s domestic criminal investigations,” and “establish new management controls for the use of the technology.”

Before the change in policy, U.S. government agencies were permitted to use cell-site simulators or “stingray” devices to replicate phone towers in order to track a phone’s location without applying for a warrant or giving probable cause.

[RELATED: A Guide To Stingray Cellphone Surveillance Technology]

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates claimed that the stingray devices have been “instrumental in aiding law enforcement in a broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations and complicated narcotics cases.”  

“This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties,” Yates said.

[RELATED: Newly Released ‘Stingray’ Manual Shows Company Asked FCC For Secrecy]

The DoJ stated that the new policy will establish a set of required practices for dealing with the data collected by the cell-site simulators, which includes deleting all data from a device “as soon as that device is located, and no less than once daily.”

The policy also lays out guidelines for the type of content that may be collected, and it prohibits the collection “contents of any communication in the course of criminal investigations,” such as emails, texts, contact information and pictures.

[RELATED: Chicago, L.A. Police Using ‘Stingray’ Surveillance Capable Of Breaking Encryption]

Cell-site simulator devices have been criticized by privacy advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union for the frequency in which they are used by law enforcement, the amount of data they pick up on innocent bystanders, and the secrecy surrounding their use.

Reuters noted that the new policy does not apply to agencies outside of the DoJ, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.