stingray report

Committee urges standard, transparent policies for Stingrays

A bipartisan report  released Dec. 19 by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform calls for standards on when law enforcement agencies should be allowed to use cell-site simulation technology -- known as Stingrays -- and calls on one federal agency to retire its unused device.

This technology has been available for years and has met with harsh criticism from privacy advocates. The devices, about the size of a suitcase, are used to track the approximate location of a mobile phone by transmitting a signal that is stronger than that coming from surrounding cell towers. This strong signal tricks phones into thinking it is the best cell tower to connect to, allowing the Stingray to identify and track the device.

Law enforcement agencies often use Stingrays to track a specific known phone, but the technology also can be used to identify unknown devices using a known location.  A report in Wired confirmed the American Civil Liberties Union claims  that some devices have the ability to record calls and text messages if the proper approval is given.

The new report raises questions over the standards for using these devices and their potential to infringe on citizen rights granted by the First and Fourth Amendments. It calls on Congress to pass legislation that would set up a legal framework establishing when law enforcement agencies can obtain and use geolocation data in an investigation.

Finding out which law enforcement agencies currently have Stingray technology is notoriously difficult because of non-disclosure agreements that the FBI and the companies selling the device have asked users to sign.

“These agreements condition the possession and use of cell-site simulators on an agreement by state or local law enforcement to dismiss a criminal case at the FBI’s request rather than produce information that could compromise the devices,” the report reads. It specifically cites cases where prosecutors have dropped evidence from a trial, or entire charges, rather than disclose the use of a Stingray.

The report says that these non-disclosure agreements should be replaced with practices “of clarity and candor” toward the court when a Stingray is involved in a case. Law enforcement agencies should also be upfront about their use of the technology with the court, the report recommends.

These devices are funded from local coffers as well as from grants from the Department of Homeland Security. These grants should be contingent on whether localities are following federal guidelines for Stingray use because there isn’t much consistency from city to city, the report recommends. It suggests that these guidelines should also be adopted by law enforcement agencies that already use Stingrays.

The report singled out the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration for being the only office of inspector general, out of 24 federal agencies queried by the Committee, to have Stingray technology. The TIGTA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the device but has never used it. “Given the amount of money spent, the fact that no other IG owns a device, and the device has not been used, TIGTA should strongly consider decommissioning the device it has and agree to not acquire any cell-site simulators in the future,” the report reads.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee began looking into Stingray technology more than a year ago when its Information Technology Subcommittee held a hearing on the subject.

Editor's note: This story was changed Dec. 20 to correct the scope of the Committee's investigation.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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