The Justice Department announced a new policy last week that requires Federal Law Enforcement Agents to obtain a warrant before deploying cellphone-tracking devices. The new policy is a comprehensive move by the department intended to “promote transparency and consistency and accountability.” The move is largely an acknowledgement that the use of these devices raise serious privacy concerns and the Justice Department has failed to keep up with the advancement of tracking technology. Often referred to as StingRay, the small, box-like devices are used to locate suspects by identifying signals coming from their cellphones in much the same way cell towers operate. Much like cell towers, these devices sweep up information from the cellphones of innocent bystanders in the same area as the suspect. Officials say the devices do not capture emails, texts, images, or other data from cellphones. Federal authorities only use the technology to capture the unique serial number from the suspect’s cellphone. The technology is small but mighty, so powerful it can penetrate the walls of homes.
The new policy will require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using a StingRay or any similar cellphone-tracking device. An exception for exigent circumstances will remain under the new policy to allow law enforcement to deploy the technology without a warrant in emergency situations such as preventing the destruction of evidence, pursuing a fleeing felon, or to protect human life or prevent serious injury. Under the new policy, law enforcement must delete the data obtained as soon as the suspect’s phone is located. If law enforcement is unable to locate the suspect’s phone, all data gathered must be deleted at least once a day. In instances where law enforcement knows where the suspect is but not his or her phone number, the data gathered from the simulator in an attempt to recognize patterns near the suspect’s location must be destroyed as soon as they’ve located the phone or at least once every 30 days. Authorities must also retain data that could potentially help prove a suspect’s innocence. The policy will also require annual reporting on the number of times a cell-tower simulator is used, how many times another agency has requested and obtained permission for use, and the number of time a simulator is used under the exigent circumstances exception. The new policy will hopefully shed much needed insight into the use of cell-tower simulator technology at the federal level while intervening to protect the public’s privacy interest.
If you have a State criminal case in Ohio or need a Federal criminal defense lawyer, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.