Federal law enforcement officers will now be required to obtain a search warrant before using technology that tracks cellphone locations, according to a policy update issued by the Justice Department on Thursday.Under the new rules, federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the DEA must establish probable cause before they use cell site simulators or “Stingray” technology to pin point the location of specific cellular devices. While the more stringent guidelines only pertain to federal law enforcement agencies—not local agencies—the policy change is a major win for privacy advocates.
Widely used in criminal investigations to identify the location of specific cellphones, cell site simulators work by transmitting as cell towers to pick up cellphone signals in the vicinity, which can then be used to identify the location of a known device. The new policy comes in response to criticisms that the use of such technology without a search warrant is an infringement of privacy and violates the Fourth Amendment.
“Cell site simulator technology has been instrumental in aiding law enforcement in a broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations and complicated narcotics cases. 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 press release.
One of the greatest concerns voiced by opponents of Stingray technology is that it picks up location data for other cellphones in the area that are not the intended target. To address this issue, the new policy also requires that federal law enforcement agencies delete any data that falls into this category within 30 days.