Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Federal Judge Declares Evidence from Cellphone Tracker Unconstitutional

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Federal Judge Declares Evidence from Cellphone Tracker Unconstitutional

Article excerpt

A federal judge ruled for the first time on Tuesday to suppress evidence obtained using an International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catcher, more commonly known as a cell site simulator, or a "Stingray."

The constitutional rights of defendant Raymond Lambis were violated with an "unreasonable search" when the US Drug Enforcement Administration used a Stingray to locate his apartment during a drug- trafficking investigation, ruled US District Judge William Pauley. The controversial devices work by mimicking a nearby cellphone tower, tricking a suspect's phone into connecting to it and thereby making data on the phone accessible to law enforcement agencies.

Although Stingrays have been used frequently by federal and local agencies in the United States for the past decade, awareness of the technology has only just become widespread in recent years, thanks to the work of privacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who say that collecting such information without a warrant, as many agencies do, is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights.

According to recent ACLU data, at least 66 agencies in 24 states own the devices. Many of these agencies have used the technology in secret for years without getting warrants, explaining their methods to judges, or disclosing to defense attorneys. But now they've begun to face "significant pushback," as reflected by the ruling Tuesday, says Nathan Freed Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

"The challenge for a long time was the lack of information," Mr. Wessler explains. "There has been such an extraordinary and extreme level of secrecy around these technologies that legislators just had no idea that this was even in existence, much less that police in their state were using it frequently. As information has become more public, we've actually seen that legislation imposing reasonable controls, like a warrant requirement, has deep bipartisan support."

Among the 66 known agencies are a number of federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the DEA, the Secret Service, and US Marshals Service. Some have already begun to more strictly regulate Stingray use, as the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security adopted policies last year requiring warrants in most search circumstances when using a cell site stimulator and full disclosure to judges.

In an October 2014 press conference that went largely unnoticed until the following February, when the Charlotte Observer published a video as part of an investigation into Stingray use by local police, FBI Director James Comey defended the agency's use of the technology.

"It's how we find killers, it's how we find kidnappers, it's how we find drug dealers, it's how we find missing children, it's how we find pedophiles," Mr. Comey said at a media appearance in Charlotte. "It's work you want us to be able to do."

While the technology has proved undeniably useful, both liberal and conservative lawmakers largely agree that its use must be more strictly regulated across every level of law enforcement to avoid unconstitutional violations of privacy. …

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