US Tightens Mobile Phone Tracking Rules

End of the free-for-all? Search warrant now required for devices that track mobile phone locations

The US Justice Department has ruled that any federal agencies and other law enforcement units looking to use devices that track mobile phone locations will now be required to obtain a search warrant in order to do so.

The department said that its “enhanced policy” for the use of cell-site simulators comes after a period in which federal agencies such as the FBI and DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) used the devices without applying for a warrant or indeed a probable cause.

Stingray Devices

Justice, court, legal © Evlakhov Valeriy Shutterstock 2012The DoJ said that the move will “enhance transparency and accountability, improve training and supervision, establish a higher and more consistent legal standard and increase privacy protections in relation to law enforcement’s use of this critical technology.”

“With the issuance of this policy, the Department of Justice reaffirms its commitment to hold itself to the highest standards as it performs its critical work to protect public safety,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.

“Cell-site simulator technology has been instrumental in aiding law enforcement in a broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations and complicated narcotics cases,” explained Quillian Yates. “This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.”

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates at least 53 agencies across 21 states in the United States use cell-site simulators, but the number could be much higher because many agencies keep their purchasing of the devices a secret.

And the British are not immune to this technology either.

Earlier in the summer, it was revealed that mobile phone users in the United Kingdom were being actively tracked by the police and other agencies after an investigation revealed the widespread prevalence of monitoring stations disguised as phone masts.

Indeed, over 20 such fake cell towers were discovered in London over a three week period, but the Met Police refused to confirm or deny the revelation.

Those cell-site simulators are also known as IMSI catchers or Stingrays, and essentially they replicate mobile phone towers to pick up location-identifying information. This information is used by law enforcement to track individuals via their mobile phone, but does reportedly capture the contents of any communications on the suspect device.

Unfortunately, Stingrays will also collect vast amounts of data from innocent passers-by.

In America, the new tighter rules governing the use of Stingrays goes into effect immediately and applies department-wide.


Widespread Use

Image courtsey of Privacy International
Image courtsey of Privacy International

In Britain, the use of these devices has been going on for many years now, but the police refused to talk about it. Back in October 2011, the Met spoke to TechweekEurope directly, and would not confirm whether it specifically has the technology, because of its covert nature.

The Met had acquired IMSI catcher technology in 2011 from a Leeds-based company called Datong plc, whose customers include the MoD and the US Secret Service. Privacy International (PI) told TechweekEurope back in 2011 that the police had been using IMSI catchers since 2006.

“In reality the police in the UK have been using these IMSI catchers for the last five years now at least,” Eric King, the human rights and technology advisor at Privacy International, told TechweekEurope at the time. “What has changed is that these image catchers have become smaller and cheaper, and we are unclear on the legal justification for using them, as they do a lot more than location finding.”

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