The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched a review on how law enforcement agencies across the nation obtain and use dragnet cellphone surveillance technology that government agencies have attempted to keep secret for years.
In addition to the review, the DOJ will seek to establish guidelines on how those devices can be used by federal, state and local police and will move to reveal more information about when those devices are used against criminal suspects.
The review and forthcoming disclosures come at a time when privacy advocates have challenged law enforcement’s use of cellphone surveillance devices known as “IMSI catchers” at the federal, state and local level. News of the review was first published Sunday evening by The Wall Street Journal.
The surveillance devices — known by various brand names including “StingRay” and “DRTbox” — gather data from cellphones by forcing devices within a given area to connect to it instead of a regular phone tower. Once connected, the devices gather various metadata from a phone, including call logs and location data.
Privacy advocates have raised concerns over the devices because they do not allow law enforcement to target a specific phone. Instead, StingRays and DRTboxes work by forcing all phones in a given area on a certain network to connect to it; in doing so, the devices have been known to cause cellphone users — most of whom are not the intended target of a police investigation — to have their service disrupted.
Civil liberties groups have also challenged law enforcement’s practice of not obtaining warrants before using the devices, raising constitutional concerns over unwarranted searches and seizures. In recent public testimony, police and prosecutors have cited a non-disclosure agreement forged between agencies, the federal government and the manufacturer of cellphone surveillance gear as a reason why warrants were not obtained in some cases and why use of StingRays and DRTboxes were not disclosed during hearings and trials.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has recently started obtaining warrants before it uses IMSI catchers, the Journal reported. It is unclear if the FBI, which requires state and local agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, is now also requiring other agencies to seek warrants before surveillance gear is used.
Read more: TheBlot Magazine’s Ongoing StingRay Coverage
The federal government has fought hard to keep StingRays and DRTboxes a secret from the public. It has routinely interjected in local and state cases, asking judges to withhold details on IMSI catchers from the public on homeland security grounds. It also requires local and state agencies to notify the FBI in writing if a citizen has requested records related to IMSI catchers under open records laws “in order to allow sufficient time for the FBI to seek to prevent disclosure through appropriate channels,” and it requires police and prosecutors to drop criminal charges against suspects in cases where details of the surveillance gear might be made public.
But despite their best efforts, details on how and when law enforcement uses cellphone surveillance gear has bubbled up in documents and courtroom testimony over the past few years. Angry judges who are fed up with the secrecy surrounding the spy gear have threatened to hold officers in contempt for refusing to testify about the devices in criminal cases. Other judges have sided with civil liberties groups and news organizations seeking documents about StingRays and DRTboxes, ordering local agencies to make public thousands of documents related to their use.
Last month, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) released documents related to the Erie County Sheriff’s Department use of cellphone surveillance gear. The documents, obtained only after the NYCLU sued the agency, revealed that law enforcement had used cellphone spy tools dozens of times and had “implemented almost no privacy protections for the Erie County residents it is sworn to protect and serve,” NYCLU staff attorney Mariko Hirose said in a statement.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released dozens of documents detailing conversations between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Harris Corporation, the Florida-based company that manufactures and sells StingRays. The ACLU charged Harris with misleading the FCC in 2010 when it sought approval to market and sell the devices to local law enforcement for use in “emergency” situations. Prior to the application, Harris had been leasing the equipment to police for use strictly in anti-terrorism and homeland security investigations.
Based on the documents released by the ACLU, TheBlot Magazine filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FCC seeking copies of user manuals associated with the devices Harris sought to license, including two versions of the StingRay surveillance gear.
Six months after the request was filed, the FCC turned over a single user manual with redactions made by another government agency. Last month, TheBlot appealed the FCC’s decision to redact the document.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.