Pubdate: Fri, 04 Sep 2015
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Nicholas Fandos


Agents to Seek Warrants Before Using Secretive Equipment

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department will regularly require federal 
agents to seek warrants before using secretive equipment that can 
locate and track cellphones, the agency announced Thursday, the first 
regulations on an increasingly controversial technology.

The new policy, which also limits what information may be collected 
and how long it can be stored, puts a measure of judicial oversight 
on a technology that was designed to hunt terrorists overseas but has 
become a popular tool among federal agents and local police officers 
for fighting crime.

Civil libertarians have expressed grave privacy concerns about the 
technology's proliferation, but the new Justice Department policies 
do not apply to local police forces.

The device, commonly called a cell-site simulator or StingRay, tricks 
cellphones into connecting with it by acting like a cell tower, 
allowing the authorities to determine the location of a tracked 
phone. In doing so, however, the equipment also connects with all 
other phones in the area, allowing investigators to collect 
information on people not suspected of any crime.

The device is also capable of capturing calls, text messages, emails 
and other data. Until Thursday's regulations, the rules for the use 
of that information and the duration it could be kept had not been 
detailed and varied across the department's offices and agencies.

Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general, said Thursday that 
investigators could not use cell-site simulators to intercept content 
such as emails or text messages. And all information collected would 
be deleted daily.

"The policy is really designed to try to promote transparency, 
consistency and accountability, all while being mindful of the 
public's privacy," Yates told reporters.

The new rules also aim to bring greater uniformity to the use of the 
technology, outlining new management practices, reporting 
requirements and a standardized approval processes for requesting a 
warrant to use the technology.

Other than in rare urgent cases, the policy will require that agents 
confer with prosecutors before using a cell-site simulator and then 
inform a judge of what the device will be used for - measures that 
have not been common practice.

The new policy applies to domestic investigations by the federal law 
enforcement agencies the department oversees, including the FBI, the 
Marshals Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. It does not 
cover state or local law enforcement agencies, however, unless they 
are engaged in a joint task force with the federal authorities. Local 
authorities have widely adopted the technology to hunt thieves and 
other criminals, but do not often disclose its use.

"This is a strong step in the direction of protecting the 
constitutional rights of Americans," said Nathan Freed Wessler, a 
staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. 
But, he added, the Justice Department could have extended the rules 
to apply to state or local agencies that have borrowed the devices 
from federal ones or purchased their own with federal grant money.

Fandos writes for The NYT News Service.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom