DOJ begins reviewing stingray uses and policies

The Department of Justice confirmed that it is looking into its policies surrounding cell-site simulators and surveillance technology.
The Department of Justice confirmed that it is looking into its policies surrounding cell-site simulators and surveillance technology.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is reviewing the policies in place surrounding cell phone tracking devices, including “stingrays” and “dirtboxes.”

Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the DOJ, confirmed the review plans in an email correspondence with SCMagazine.com on Monday.

“With regard to this particular technology, the Department of Justice is in the process of examining its policies to ensure they reflect the department's continuing commitment to conducting its vital missions while according appropriate respect for privacy and civil liberties,' he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the DOJ's recent look into the surveillance devices and added that officials had said they didn't want to reveal information to the point that criminals could bypass the devices. The article also stated that officials don't want to give defense lawyers possible fuel in “prosecutions where warrants weren't used.”

Privacy advocates, in particular an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) staff attorney, took issue with this addendum to the DOJ's review.

“Law enforcement agencies have been violating the rights of defendants and non-suspects for years by failing to get warrants and then hiding the fact and details of stingray use from defense attorneys and courts,” wrote ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler in a blog post. “Trying to insulate these violations from challenge by maintaining secrecy until pending cases have concluded will perpetuate the government's outrageous conduct, not ameliorate it.”

Efforts to expose local law enforcement's use of these cell-site simulators has amplified over the past year with the FBI even clarifying its own stance on them and saying court warrants aren't needed if the devices are used in a public space.

Also concerning to privacy advocates, beyond warrantless surveillance, is the high frequency of stingrays being used in conjunction with non-disclosure agreements from the FBI. This, said Hanni Fakhoury, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior staff attorney in an email to SCMagazine.com, led local law enforcement to determine when and how to use the devices.

“I just hope there's more than an internal conversation and investigation but meaningful change, including the use of a warrant nationwide before deploying these devices, as well as significantly improved transparency and accountability,” he wrote.

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