Justice Department adds oversight to some cell-phone trackers, but much secrecy remains

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The Department of Justice has adopted a new policy to limit the use of cell-phone tracking devices by federal law enforcement, but ignores their use by local police departments.

The new rules require departments to obtain search warrants based on probable cause, according to Buzzfeed.

The cell-site simulator devices, commonly called stingrays, trick cell phones into recognizing the device as a cell tower. Phones then connect to the stingray, which can collect data on the cell phone’s location and other metadata.

The new policy exempts some exigent and exceptional circumstances from the need to obtain a search warrant before using a stingray device, though the use must comply with relevant statutes.

That local law-enforcement agencies were not addressed in the Justice Department rules remains a large concern. The use of stingrays by local police departments has risen and it remains unclear just how many departments use them.

Federal agencies will need to delete the data of bystanders whose information they collect within 30 days; if the agency knows the bystanders not to be targets of the investigation, data must be deleted within a day, according to Reuters.

Agencies outside the purview of the Justice Department are not bound by the new rules. That includes the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency.

“Disturbingly, the policy does not apply to other federal agencies or the many state and local police departments that have received federal funds to purchase these devices,” Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

That the Justice Department has realized stingrays need oversight is encouraging. However, their use in many local and federal law-enforcement agencies remain hidden from oversight and public scrutiny.


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