Fed­eral agen­cies own 400 se­cret cell­phone track­ers

Congress urged to adopt rules for use

The Washington Times Daily - - NATION - BY AN­DREA NOBLE

The Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity and Jus­tice Depart­ment have spent col­lec­tively more than $95 mil­lion on se­cret cell­phone track­ing tech­nol­ogy and own more than 400 cell-site sim­u­la­tors that can be used to zero in covertly on the lo­ca­tions of cell­phones, ac­cord­ing to a con­gres­sional re­port.

A re­port re­leased Mon­day by the House Over­sight and Govern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee re­veals a tally of how many cell-site sim­u­la­tors fed­eral agen­cies own and rec­om­mends that law­mak­ers adopt a na­tional stan­dard to gov­ern use of the de­vices by lo­cal and fed­eral law en­force­ment agen­cies.

With 194 cell-site sim­u­la­tors, the FBI has the most of any of the agen­cies iden­ti­fied as own­ing the de­vices, which of­ten are re­ferred to by brand names in­clud­ing St­ingray or Hail­storm.

The U.S. Mar­shals Ser­vice has 70; U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment has 59; U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion and the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion each has 33; U.S. Se­cret Ser­vice has 32; the Bureau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives has 13; the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice Crim­i­nal In­ves­ti­ga­tions divi­sion has two; and the Trea­sury in­spec­tor gen­eral has one.

The re­port does not in­di­cate the spe­cific types of de­vices the agen­cies have but lists the costs of the in­di­vid­ual de­vices pur­chased as $41,000 to $500,000.

Cell-site sim­u­la­tors mimic cell tow­ers to trick cell­phones to con­nect to them, en­abling in­ves­ti­ga­tors to ob­tain iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion about the phones and their lo­ca­tions. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers of­ten de­ploy the suit­case-sized de­vices by haul­ing them in ve­hi­cles as they drive through neigh­bor­hoods look­ing for sus­pects’ phones, scoop­ing up data on cell­phones of passers-by in the process.

Home­land Se­cu­rity and Jus­tice adopted poli­cies in 2015 re­quir­ing law en­force­ment to ob­tain war­rants in most cases be­fore de­ploy­ing cell-site sim­u­la­tors, but the re­port notes that there is no stan­dard pol­icy on the use of the de­vices by lo­cal au­thor­i­ties and rec­om­mends that fed­eral law­mak­ers en­act leg­is­la­tion to cre­ate a na­tional frame­work for le­gal use.

“Congress should es­tab­lish a le­gal frame­work that gov­erns govern­ment agen­cies, com­mer­cial en­ti­ties, and pri­vate cit­i­zens’ ac­cess to and use of ge­olo­ca­tion data, in­clud­ing ge­olo­ca­tion data ob­tained by the use of a cell-site sim­u­la­tor,” reads the re­port, writ­ten by Reps. Ja­son Chaf­fetz, Utah Repub­li­can, and Eli­jah E. Cum­mings, Mary­land Demo­crat.

In the mean­time, the 36-page re­port sug­gests that Home­land Se­cu­rity and Jus­tice re­quire agen­cies seek­ing cell-site sim­u­la­tors to ad­here to fed­eral guide­lines be­fore ap­prov­ing the pur­chase and use of the de­vices. The FBI al­ready re­quires agen­cies to sign nondis­clo­sure agree­ments be­fore ap­prov­ing their pur­chases.

The re­port also sug­gests that nondis­clo­sure agree­ments — which have re­quired prose­cu­tors to aban­don crim­i­nal charges rather than dis­close lo­cal po­lice use of cell-site sim­u­la­tors — should be elim­i­nated al­to­gether.

“Nondis­clo­sure agree­ments 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,” the re­port states.

The re­port does not in­di­cate how many lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies have cell-site sim­u­la­tors, but it states that the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment iden­ti­fied more than $1.8 mil­lion in grant money it pro­vided to state and lo­cal law en­force­ment to pur­chase such tech­nol­ogy.


Cell-site sim­u­la­tors, of­ten re­ferred to by brand names in­clud­ing St­ingray (above) or Hail­storm, mimic cell tow­ers to trick cell­phones to con­nect to them, en­abling in­ves­ti­ga­tors to ob­tain iden­ti­fy­ing in­for­ma­tion about the phones and their lo­ca­tions.

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