US House re­port urges clearer guid­ance on cell phone tech

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

Clearer guide­lines are needed for law en­force­ment’s use of se­cre­tive and in­tru­sive cell phone track­ing tech­nol­ogy, and po­lice and fed­eral agents should be up­front with a judge about their de­ploy­ment, a House com­mit­tee said in a re­port Mon­day.

The re­port from the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee ex­am­ines the use of cell-site sim­u­la­tors by fed­eral, state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies. The tech­nol­ogy works by mim­ick­ing a cell­phone tower, al­low­ing law en­force­ment to col­lect ba­sic data such as a unique sub­scriber num­ber from cell­phones in a par­tic­u­lar area or neigh­bor­hood. The data can help po­lice de­ter­mine the lo­ca­tion of a tar­geted phone with­out the user even mak­ing a call or send­ing a text mes­sage.

The sur­veil­lance de­vices have been broadly adopted by po­lice de­part­ments and fed­eral agen­cies, which see them as vi­tal in help­ing track the lo­ca­tion of crim­i­nal sus­pects. But the tech­nol­ogy has raised Fourth Amend­ment con­cerns among pri­vacy ad­vo­cates for its abil­ity to col­lect data not only about the tar­gets of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion but also in­no­cent by­standers who hap­pen to be within range of the sim­u­la­tor de­vice.

“While law en­force­ment agen­cies should be able to uti­lize tech­nol­ogy as a tool to help of­fi­cers be safe and ac­com­plish their mis­sions, ab­sent proper over­sight and safe­guards, 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,” the re­port states.

Sim­u­la­tion de­vices

The Jus­tice Depart­ment has 310 de­vices across its com­po­nent agen­cies, in­clud­ing the FBI and the US Mar­shals Ser­vice, and spent more than $71 mil­lion be­tween fis­cal years 2010 and 2014 to ac­quire the use of the tech­nol­ogy. The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity has 124 cell-site sim­u­la­tion de­vices, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments across the coun­try have used them re­peat­edly, and the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice says it’s de­ployed the tech­nol­ogy to pur­sue in­ves­ti­ga­tions into money laun­der­ing, iden­tity theft and other crimes. The Jus­tice Depart­ment is­sued new poli­cies last year aimed at en­sur­ing that fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cials ob­tain a search war­rant be­fore us­ing the tech­nol­ogy, ex­clud­ing cer­tain emer­gency cir­cum­stances. The pol­icy ap­plied only to fed­eral agen­cies within the Jus­tice Depart­ment and not, as some pri­vacy ad­vo­cates had hoped, to state and lo­cal law en­force­ment whose own use of cell-site sim­u­la­tors have drawn scru­tiny from judges. The Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment is­sued its own, sim­i­lar pol­icy.

But the House com­mit­tee said there should be more con­sis­tent stan­dards cov­er­ing lo­cal agen­cies as well. The House com­mit­tee made sev­eral rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing call­ing on state and lo­cal agen­cies to adopt poli­cies that are on par with those in use by the Jus­tice and Home­land Se­cu­rity de­part­ments.

The re­port also crit­i­cized the use of nondis­clo­sure agree­ments that state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies sign with the FBI and the man­u­fac­turer sell­ing the de­vice. Those agree­ments, which pro­hibit lo­cal author­i­ties from dis­cussing the tech­nol­ogy’s use in court, “should be re­placed with agree­ments that re­quire clar­ity and can­dor to the court when­ever a cell-site sim­u­la­tor has been used by law en­force­ment in a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” ac­cord­ing to the House re­port. And it said the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should make fund­ing to lo­cal agen­cies for cell-site sim­u­la­tors con­tin­gent on a re­quire­ment that they adopt “new and en­hanced” guide­lines of the Jus­tice and Home­land Se­cu­rity de­part­ments. —AP

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