Senators Questioning FBI About Use of Stingray Fake Cell Towers

Posted: January 4, 2015 by gamegetterII in Police state USSA
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Two U.S. senators are questioning whether the FBI has granted itself too much leeway on when it can use decoy cellphone towers to scoop up data on the identities and locations of cellphone users. The lawmakers say the agency now says it doesn’t need a search warrant when gathering data about people milling around in public spaces.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman and ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee respectively, have written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson about the use of the surveillance technology called an IMSI catcher, though also referred to by the trade name “Stingray.”

Cell tower simulators work by mimicking the legitimate cell towers used by companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. They catch the signals emitted from cellphones and other mobile devices and extract insight into who owns the phone, his or her location, and other details. That’s a bit like someone setting up a big blue box, posting a United States Postal Service logo on the side, copying information from the letters fooled users deposit in it, and then soon after dumping the accumulated mail into a real mail box. No one need be the wiser.

The hitch of, course, is that spoofing the U.S. Postal Service would be illegal. What Leahy and Grassley are wondering is whether what the FBI is doing crosses a legal line.

What has particularly prompted their concerns, they say, is a meeting between their Senate staffs and the FBI. In that discussion, the agency representatives, they say, indicated that FBI policy requires obtaining a search warrant before using a cell-tower simulator to go after a target. But, say the senators, FBI officials revealed that along with the carve-outs for search warrants for cell-tower spoofing that follow regular law enforcement practice — where the public is in immediate danger or where it is a fugitive being tracked — the FBI has recently granted itself an exception for “cases in which the technology is used in public places or other locations at which the FBI deems there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

That would seem to suggest that the FBI has determined that simply making a call while walking down a city street is enough to free federal law enforcement from its internal restrictions on digging into your phone data. The senators have given the departments until Jan. 30 to respond. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

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