Federal agencies can spy on phones with 400 cell-site simulators
The Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department have spent collectively more than $95 million on secret cellphone tracking technology and own more than 400 cell-site simulators that can be used to zero in covertly on the locations of cellphones, according to a congressional report.
A report released Monday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee reveals a tally of how many cell-site simulators federal agencies own and recommends that lawmakers adopt a national standard to govern use of the devices by local and federal law enforcement agencies.
With 194 cell-site simulators, the FBI has the most of any of the agencies identified as owning the devices, which often are referred to by brand names including Stingray or Hailstorm.
The U.S. Marshals Service has 70; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has 59; U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Drug Enforcement Administration each has 33; U.S. Secret Service has 32; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has 13; the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations division has two; and the Treasury inspector general has one.
The report does not indicate the specific types of devices the agencies have but lists the costs of the individual devices purchased as $41,000 to $500,000.
Cell-site simulators mimic cell towers to trick cellphones to connect to them, enabling investigators to obtain identifying information about the phones and their locations. Law enforcement officers often deploy the suitcase-sized devices by hauling them in vehicles as they drive through neighborhoods looking for suspects’ phones, scooping up data on cellphones of passers-by in the process.
Homeland Security and Justice adopted policies in 2015 requiring law enforcement to obtain warrants in most cases before deploying cell-site simulators, but the report notes that there is no standard policy on the use of the devices by local authorities and recommends that federal lawmakers enact legislation to create a national framework for legal use.
“Congress should establish a legal framework that governs government agencies, commercial entities, and private citizens’ access to and use of geolocation data, including geolocation data obtained by the use of a cell-site simulator,” reads the report, written by Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, and Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.
In the meantime, the 36-page report suggests that Homeland Security and Justice require agencies seeking cell-site simulators to adhere to federal guidelines before approving the purchase and use of the devices. The FBI already requires agencies to sign nondisclosure agreements before approving their purchases.
The report also suggests that nondisclosure agreements — which have required prosecutors to abandon criminal charges rather than disclose local police use of cell-site simulators — should be eliminated altogether.
“Nondisclosure agreements should be replaced with agreements that require clarity and candor to the court whenever a cell-site simulator has been used by law enforcement in a criminal investigation,” the report states.
The report does not indicate how many local law enforcement agencies have cell-site simulators, but it states that the Homeland Security Department identified more than $1.8 million in grant money it provided to state and local law enforcement to purchase such technology.
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