Legislation aims to ban use of stingrays without warrants

The legislation aims to formalize ground rules set up by two government agencies

New legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives aims to prohibit federal, state and local government agencies from using without a warrant so-called stingrays or cell-site simulators often used to intercept mobile communications.

Stingrays or “IMSI catchers” track the location of mobile phones by mimicking cellphone towers. The use of this technology without a warrant by law enforcement has been criticized by civil rights groups.

The new legislation will try to implement on a nationwide basis and across all federal and state agencies moves taken by the Department of Justice, which said in September that law enforcement agents will have to obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause before using a cell-site simulator, with some exceptions. Under the DOJ policy, old and irrelevant data would also have to be deleted.

The Department of Homeland Security also announced a similar requirement of warrant and its data retention policy for the use of stingrays. 

The Cell-Site Simulator Act of 2015, also dubbed the Stingray Privacy Act, provides exceptions to the warrant requirement in emergencies and for foreign intelligence surveillance.

“The abuse of Stingrays and other cell site simulators by individuals, including law enforcement, could enable gross violations of privacy,” said Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who introduced the bill on Monday, in a statement.

Based on press reports and publicly available documents, the American Civil Liberties Union identified on a map 57 agencies in 22 states and the District of Columbia that have stingray technology. It cautioned that because of the secrecy surrounding the purchase and use of the technology, its map "dramatically underrepresents the actual use of stingrays by law enforcement agencies nationwide."

The original cosponsors of the new bill include House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, and Rep. Peter Welch, Democrat from Vermont.

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