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Tech by VICE

The FBI Now Needs a Warrant to Use Stingray Cell Phone Trackers

New policy improves transparency and better protects privacy.

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
Sep 3 2015, 9:25pm

Image: Flegere/Shutterstock

The US government is lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding the controversial cell phone tracking tools known as "Stingrays" or "IMSI catchers," announcing a new policy that will require feds to get a court authorization and be more transparent about the use of these devices.

For years, local cops and feds have used Stingrays, which essentially mimic cell towers, to track phones in countless investigations. During that time, authorities did everything they could to keep even the existence of these tools out of the public eye, and to avoid telling even judges when they used them.

This policy of obscurity prompted some prosecutors to drop cases rather than explain how they got the evidence.

That won't be the case anymore. Thanks to the new policy for the use of Stingrays, federal agents will now always need to get a search warrant whenever they want to use the technology, and be more transparent when explaining to judges what they're doing with it.

"This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals' privacy and civil liberties," Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a statement.

"This is absolutely a win for privacy and transparency but no means a total win."

From now on, federal agencies will also have to delete the collected data as soon as the suspect's cellphone is located, or, regardless, once a day. And agencies will have to publish annual data revealing how many times Stingrays have been used.

The new policy is clearly a win for privacy activists, who have been fighting against government secrecy surrounding the use of Stingrays for years.

"About time," tweeted Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the digital rights organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The new policy, however, doesn't apply to everyone. It only covers federal agencies, so local and state cops won't be bound by it.

Nate Wessler, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who has litigated cases involving the use of Stingrays, called the new policy a "step in the right direction" and "a win for privacy and transparency."

But he also noted that it doesn't apply to everyone who owns a Stingray, leaves the door open for "undefined" circumstances where authorities don't need a warrant, something that could become "a serious loophole."

"To ensure that these kind of protections are followed consistently, we really need Congress to step in and set the rules as a binding matters and we really need courts to take a look at this issue and tell us how the Fourth Amendment applies," Wessler told Motherboard in a phone interview.

Marcy Wheeler, a well-known blogger who writes about civil liberties, analyzed the policy and concluded that there are "obvious" loopholes, specifically regarding "exigent" or emergency uses. These exceptions to the warrant requirement, Wheeler noted in a blog post, cover "many, if not most, known uses" of Stingrays in the past.