On Monday, 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 Stingray 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, have issued requests for information related to the potential use of stingrays, also known as cell-site simulators.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation described the tracking tool:
The Stingray is 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.
The House Oversight Committee is asking the agencies to provide “policies, guidance, or memoranda” on the use of cell-site simulator technology that may have been used in conjunction with law enforcement operations. The committee is also seeking information related to Stingray use at the state and local levels, as well as copies of the contentious nondisclosure agreements law enforcement must sign in order to operate the equipment. The letters give the agencies a two week deadline to report their findings.
Chaffetz 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.
Shortly after the changes were announced, the New York Observer reported that the rule change may have been written in a way which will allow continued tracking, as well as hinder the defense of individuals who suspect they have been monitored by the Stingrays without a warrant.
Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Observer that the use of “criminal investigation” only specifies one kind of work the DOJ performs while pursuing criminals. “For instance, when federal agents use cell-site simulators for ‘national security’ purposes, they won’t be required to obtain a warrant by the terms of this policy,” Mr. Cardozo wrote on the EFF blog.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking member on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, also expressed concerns over the language used in the rules, specifically the exemptions to getting a warrant. According to the District Sentinel, Leahy stated, “I will press the Department to justify them.”
How many agencies are using these tools?
Last month Congress held its first hearing on stingray cellphone surveillance. Officials with the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security released new details about the federal government’s use of stingray surveillance, including admissions that the equipment does in fact spy on innocent bystanders’ cellphones.
During the hearing, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Seth M. Stodder revealed a new policy that allows the Secret Service to use cell site simulators without a warrant if they believe there is a “nonspecific threat to the president or another protected person.”
Stodder stated that under “exceptional circumstances,” exceptions would be made and use of the device would only require approval from“executive-level personnel” at Secret Service headquarters and the U.S. attorney for the relevant jurisdiction. Despite the exemption, Stodder said the Secret Service would not use the devices in routine criminal investigations.
Just days after the congressional hearing, The Guardian revealed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is also making use of the Stingray devices.
As of November 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union has identified at least 45 different local police departments, state and federal agencies who are using the tools. Known federal agencies employing the technology include the DHS, the DOJ, the IRS, the Secret Service, the NSA, and the FBI.