Some 45 rights groups have delivered a letter and over 34,000 petition signatures to the FCC and Department of Justice calling on them to investigate the use of controversial mobile phone surveillance technology by law enforcers without a warrant.
The groups have decided to voice their concerns after reports emerged last month that New York police have used International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, or ‘stingray’ technology, over 1,000 times over the past seven years without the need to obtain a warrant and with no guidelines in place governing their use.
There have also been allegations that law enforcers have used the technology improperly to spy on lawful protesters in violation of their constitutional rights.
Stingrays mimic mobile phone base towers, allowing their operators to locate specific devices/users and intercept communications. More worrying from a privacy perspective is that they also lift data from innocent bystanders.
The letter continued:
“Information about Stingray devices’ use and functions has been routinely withheld from courts and the public, and the numerous privacy and legal concerns raised by these devices have already received significant attention in national media and other outlets … We wish to highlight another serious concern: when used by law enforcement, Stingrays and other surveillance technologies do not affect all Americans equally.”
The letter goes on to allege that tools like this serve to amplify the bias in law enforcement for stopping, searching and monitoring “people of color,” eroding civil liberties.
The DoJ released new guidelines last year stating federal investigators and any local or state police they partner with must obtain a warrant for Stingray use and that procedures must be put in place to prevent unlawful retention of data on innocent bystanders.
However, that doesn’t apply to police departments acting on their own.
“Therefore, the DOJ must take further steps to ensure that all states and localities that deploy Stingrays do so in a way that is transparent, accountable, and consistent with the constitution, and encourage other agencies to put policies in place to minimize harm to historically disadvantaged communities. They could do this by ending the FBI’s practice of requiring state and local law enforcement agencies to sign nondisclosure agreements for Stingrays and could link the agency’s technology funding to a mandate that state and local agencies comply with the DOJ’s Stingray guidance.”