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FBI: No Search Warrant Needed for Data Slurping Stingrays

The FBI does not seek a court order when deploying so-called ‘Stingray’ technology to gather the mobile phone information of users in the vicinity, if it is set up in a public place, it has emerged.

The revelations came in an open letter to attorney general Eric Holder and Homeland Security Department (HSD) secretary Jeh Johnson, written by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy and ranking member Chuck Grassley.

In it, they seek clarification on a number of issues connected with the use of the mobile phone tracking technology – also known as ‘IMSI catchers’ or ‘cell site simulators’ – after having been told of a recent change in policy by the Feds.

“According to this new policy, the FBI now obtains a search warrant before deploying a cell-site simulator, although the policy contains a number of potentially broad exceptions and we continue to have questions about how it is being implemented in practice,” they wrote.

The senators requested more information on what policies are in place to protect the privacy of those whose mobile phone information is swept up alongside the suspect in question’s. They also wanted to know what legal process is sought prior to the use of cell site simulators; and what other agencies are using the technology.

They added:

“For example, we understand that the FBI’s new policy requires FBI agents to obtain a search warrant whenever a cell-site simulator is used as part of a FBI investigation or operation, unless one of several exceptions apply, including (among others): (1) cases that pose an imminent danger to public safety, (2) cases that involve a fugitive, or (3) cases in which the technology is used in public places or other locations at which the FBI deems there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Stingray is one brand name for an IMSI catcher. The technology was first revealed back in 2012 when digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU submitted an amicus brief in United States v. Rigmaiden.

In that case, defendant David Rigmaiden was on trial for identity theft, conspiracy and wire fraud, with the Feds pinpointing his location using a stingray – although in so doing they also gathered the location and registration data of countless innocent users in the area.

More recently, news emerged last year that the United States Marshals Service regularly uses airborne IMSI catchers known as ‘DRT boxes’ which can gather data from tens of thousands of phones in a single flight.

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