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Government cellphone surveillance still a problem according to law makers

Does the idea of being spied on by your own government bother you? Since 9/11, the U.S. government has stepped up its efforts in trying to prevent terror attacks.

We recently told you how the government can spy on passengers on an airplane. Now, law enforcement has a way to keep tabs on us even closer to home.

What we're talking about is the use of cell-site simulation surveillance devices. The Stingray shown below is an example of such a device.

stingray

Source: U.S. Patent and Trade Office

What is a cell-site simulator?

The Stingray is about the size of a suitcase and acts like a mini cellphone tower. It can be used to intercept your phone's location and in some cases, the content of your calls and text messages.

A government agent could be parked in a van around the block from you, or flying overhead, or walking past your house with one of these devices. Even if they're tracking down a suspected criminal in your neighborhood, they're picking up your cellphone information also.

A U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform began looking into these surveillance gadgets in 2015. The committee wanted to make sure citizens' Constitutional rights were not being violated. As a result, federal agents are now required to obtain a search warrant in most cases before using a Stingray device to spy on you.

However, the committee feels that these devices are not being regulated properly on the local level. It's recommending the implementation of oversight at the state level, adopted in every state.

The committee recently released a statement on the use of these surveillance devices. Here is a portion of its findings:

"Cell-site simulator use inside the United States raises far-reaching issues concerning the use, extent, and legality of government surveillance authority. While the Committee’s investigation and hearing focused on law enforcement’s use of these devices, non-law enforcement and/or foreign government use of cell-site simulation technology also raises serious concerns.

"Law enforcement agencies are not the only groups who may use cell-site simulation technology. It is possible, if not likely, bad actors will use these devices to further their aims. Criminals and spies, however, will not be adopting the DOJ and DHS policies and procedures or any other ethics of surveillance. They will not be self-limiting in their use of these devices so as to not capture the content of others’ conversations. Criminals could use these devices to track potential victims or even members of law enforcement. One can imagine scenarios where criminals or foreign agents use this type of technology to intercept text messages and voice calls of law enforcement, corporate CEOs, or elected officials.

"Congress and other government agencies must remain vigilant to ensure any use of cellsite simulation technology is within the bounds of the law. These devices have the potential to obtain content from [cellphones]—at this point in time, law enforcement chooses not to use the devices to collect content in domestic investigations. Other actors possessing similar devices would not be constrained by either the Constitution or choices and policies made by domestic law enforcement agencies."

Click here if you'd like to read the committee's full report.

House committee recommendations

The House committee recognizes that cell-site simulators can be a valuable law enforcement tool. In order to ensure Stingray devices don't infringe on Constitutional rights, the committee is recommending these steps to ensure transparency:

  • Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should make federal funding and/or approval of cell-site simulator technology to state and local law enforcement contingent on a requirement that these law enforcement agencies at a minimum adopt the new and enhanced guidelines that have been promulgated by DOJ and DHS for the use of these devices.
  • Non-disclosure agreements should be replaced with agreements that require clarity and candor to the court whenever a cell-site simulator has been used by law enforcement in a criminal investigation.
  • State and local law enforcement agencies should at a minimum adopt policies for the use of cell-site simulators that are equivalent to the new and enhanced guidelines DOJ and DHS have established for their use of these devices.
  • All law enforcement agencies at all levels should be candid with the courts on their use of cell-site simulator devices.
  • Individual states should enact legislation that governs how law enforcement uses cell-site simulation technology.
  • Legislation should require, with limited exceptions, issuance of a probable cause-based warrant prior to law enforcement's use of these devices.

If you are concerned about the use of these cell-site simulators, you should contact your congressperson and let them know. There is still time for congress to act on the House committee's recommendations. Click here for the best way to contact your congressperson.

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