DOJ issues new 'stingray' policies and begins requiring a warrant

Following its own investigation, the Department of Justice issued new policies surround cell-site simulators, and in particular, 'stingrays.'
Following its own investigation, the Department of Justice issued new policies surround cell-site simulators, and in particular, 'stingrays.'

The Department of Justice (DOJ) said it would look into law enforcement's use of "stingrays," or cell-site simulators, and on Thursday, it followed up on its investigation.

Effective immediately, all federal law enforcement agencies, as well as state and local agencies working with the federal government, will need to obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause before they can use the surveillance devices; this only applies in criminal cases. Along with that news, the DOJ wrote in a press release that it is also going to “enhance transparency and accountability, improve training and supervision, establish a higher and more consistent legal standard and increase privacy protections.”

Furthermore, the new rules address data deletion. If a stingray is dispatched to find a specific cell phone, for example, all data related to that hunt must be deleted once it is located.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other privacy advocates applauded the DOJ's efforts, but also said the rules fell short in certain areas.

“While we're pleasantly surprised by this long-needed first step to bring Stingrays out of the shadows and into compliance with the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, more is needed,” the EFF wrote in a blog post.

Notably, the group would like to see a statute or court decision to back up this voluntary policy, and to have the warrant requirements extend to “all state and local law enforcement agencies around the country.” 

Washington state already does have one such law in place.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) followed up with its own similar suggestions. Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project said in an emailed press release, “The Justice Department must close these loopholes, and Congress should act to pass more comprehensive legislation to ensure that Americans' privacy is protected from these devices and other location tracking technologies.” 

Both the ACLU and EFF pointed out that the policy language allows for warrantless use of the devices in specific situations, including those deemed to be a matter of national security.

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