Congress Eyes Regulations for Stingray Phone Trackers

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Congress wants to do something about stingrays. Not the fish, but the bulky devices that let law enforcement agencies imitate cell phone towers to intercept communications, sometimes without the need for court permission.

Without federal oversight and safeguards, a US House commission wrote in a report issued Monday, "the domestic use of cell-site simulators may well infringe upon the constitutional rights of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the right to free association."

Stingrays, so nicknamed because of their usefulness in sting operations, cost anywhere from $41,500 to as high as $500,000. If a suspect's phone connects to a stingray, it can capture geolocation data and other information, according to the report.

Stingrays can't be operated without a warrant in several states. In others, their use is virtually unregulated. Congress should create a nationwide framework, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said, to eliminate this patchwork of regulations and protect the privacy of Americans' cell phone communications.

The committee's investigation, which began in April 2015, found that law enforcement agencies using stingrays shrouded their activities in secrecy under the guise of protecting investigations and classified military equipment (the devices were initially designed for military use, but were later adapted for domestic law enforcement).

Even if some agencies must obtain a warrant, they're still not required to demonstrate probable cause to a judge, since the standard to obtain a search warrant is much lower, the report said.

Federal regulations could include requirements that the use of a stingray always be disclosed when presenting evidence in court, and set forth rules on how geolocation information can be accessed and used. They could be enforced by offering federal funds to purchase the devices only to agencies that are in compliance, the report suggested.

The Department of Homeland Security has spent $1.8 million on such subsidies, according to the report, and itself owns 124 stingray devices.

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