WASHINGTON, Sept. 4 (UPI) — The Justice Department announced new rules Thursday that require federal agents get a search warrant before using cell-site simulators, an increasingly controversial form of surveillance technology.
The new policy, which takes effect immediately, applies to all DOJ agencies, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Marshals Service. The devices, commonly known by the brand name StingRay or IMSI catcher, mimic cell towers forcing a wireless connection for everyone within the radius of the device and can intercept calls and text messages.
“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,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a written statement. “This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.”
The new rules come after privacy-rights advocates raised concerns about the technology. It can sweep large amounts of information from an array of cell phones at one time, whether they the focus of an investigation or not.
Yates said the Justice Department is trying to balance the interest of private citizen with the need to solve crimes while “not giving a road map to the bad guys who are trying to defeat it.”
“There are limited exceptions in the policy for exigent circumstances or exceptional circumstances where the law does not require a search warrant and circumstances make obtaining a search warrant impracticable,” she said. “Department components will be required to track and report the number of times the technology is deployed under these exceptions.”