Bill To End Warrantless Stingray Use Proposed

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

November 9, 2015

With the recent disclosure about the IRS possessing Stingray technology fresh in people’s minds, a recent initiative by US Republican CongressmanJason Chaffetz is being hailed by the privacy community as a welcome first step in the fight for private, personal communication freedom.

The need for legislation, now that the IRS has become the thirteenth federal agency to acquire the sophisticated Stingray technology has never been greater, if ’’mission-creep” and its proliferation, is to be checked. Because the measure has been introduced by the Utah Congressman, a Republican, and Chairman of the House Governmental Oversight Committee, there is a likelihood of broad support, and possible passage. As you are probably aware by now, Stingrays, also known as known as “cell-site simulators”, work by pretending to be a cell phone tower in order to strip data and metadata from any phones that connect to them.

Chaffetz correctly characterized the recent revelations about the IRS insinuating itself into the Stingray pantheon as alarming,

When you find out the IRS, and potentially others are using this tech – whoa! That’s a bridge too far. If they have [probable] cause, go get a warrant. But if you’re just on a surfing expedition, back off.

Since nobody can ascertain what the heck the IRS is doing is going to do with the devices, the Congressman’s words ring true. It is at least heartening to hear the IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen, acknowledge that the organization is aware that it must obtain a warrant for Stingray use before employing them. If only the other agencies, and local police, were as enlightened!

Chaffetz’s initiative is called the Stingray Privacy Act or Cell-Site Simulator Privacy Act, which makes use of these devices without a warrant punishable by a fine or up to 10 years incarceration, is necessary because technology is leapfrogging other elements of society. Law enforcement has tried to keep apace, but is lagging. Yet this is no reason for reverting to regressive measures such as secretive surveillance devices. Worse even, is the lengths to which law enforcement has gone to protect its furtive franchise, as has been witnessed in the tossing out of court cases rather than reveal details about the Stingray’s technology.

The Senate Judiciary committee is also holding an inquiry into their use, and in the Senate Finance committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon , a kindred privacy spirit, also asked Koskinen of the IRS for details about the agency’s use of Stingrays. In response, Koskinen  reiterated that it requires a court order for their use, without specifying how it plans to employ the devices. That is a bit troubling to civil libertarians.

About Stingray and other clandestine devices in the pipeline, Chaffetz opined that,

It’s going to present (a) new set of challenges for America. The seminal question is: how much liberty are we going to give up in the name of security?

This question resonates and reverberates frequently in the privacy vs. security debate, and it may be that a real balance may never be struck. This, however, is the cost of democracy that must be understood, and ultimately absorbed in order to ensure its continuance – much to the chagrin of law enforcement agencies and their ilk.

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