Washington state passes law requiring warrant for 'stingray' use

While Congress ramps up for its discussions and vote on the USA Freedom Act, Washington state has taken privacy into its own hands through legislation requiring a warrant to use the devic
While Congress ramps up for its discussions and vote on the USA Freedom Act, Washington state has taken privacy into its own hands through legislation requiring a warrant to use the devic

A newly passed law in Washington state will now require law enforcement to get a judge-approved warrant before deploying a ‘stingray,' or cell site simulator.

Governor Jay Inslee signed the bill into law on Monday after it was unanimously approved by both the House and Senate, The News Tribune reported. Plus, to get their warrant, police will have to disclose the devices' use to a judge and also discard cellphone data from people not associated with the specific investigation. 

The legislative move represents another example of state government attempting to defend citizens' privacy in the lapse of federal legislative movement, said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology in an interview with SCMagazine.com.

Other states have already treaded this path before, including Virginia, Minnesota and Utah, whose laws relatively mirror Washington's. This new legislation differs, though, with its more specific demands for information pertaining to the devices' use.

Geiger noted that while stingray legislation is clearly welcomed and supported by the CDT and other privacy organizations, other states have passed laws that more generally require a warrant to collect any location data. This more flexible wording allows for legal applications to future technologies, as well as those already created, that could perform similar data collection.

“Stingray technology is just one of many examples of domestic mass surveillance that has the public troubled,” Geiger said. “There are lots of technologies that are emerging right now for which the law has simply not kept pace.”

Legislators are starting to catch on to Americans' concerns, however, with the House of Representatives passing the USA Freedom Act today, effectively moving the bill to the Senate for its vote. The bill addresses Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is set to expire on June 1.

In reality, it's been a frequent back and forth with stingrays. While the FBI has explicitly said that warrants aren't needed to deploy the devices in public spaces, the Department of Justice (DOJ) went on to announce that it would review the policies in place surrounding cell phone tracking devices, not limited to stingrays. Then earlier this month, the case U.S. v Davis, which initially determined that police needed a warrant to seek cellphone records from U.S. wireless carriers, was reversed.

The opinion stated that the defendant had little expectation of privacy in records held by his phone company because they served “compelling government interests.”

UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect the U.S. House of Representatives' movement on the USA Freedom Act
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