Privacy SOS

Senators demand information from feds on cell phone spying

How do the feds use controversial cell site simulators, also known as 'stingrays'? We are about to find out.

In a new letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and DHS chief Jeh Johnson, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) joined democratic colleagues and Vermont's independent Senator Bernie Sanders in asking a host of specific questions about cell site simulators and their deployment nationwide.

The letter from the group of Senators, an effort organized by Jon Tester of Montana, comes in the wake of disclosures that police in cities across the United States have been using stingrays without notifying judges of their intention to use the invasive devices.

Among the questions the Senators ask DHS and DOJ are:

To what extent does your department use IMSI-catchers (Stingrays, DRTboxes, etc.) or other similar technology?

Did the DOJ Office of Privacy and Civil Liberties, the DHS Privacy Office, and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties review and/or conduct a privacy impact assessment or other review regarding the use of these technologies prior to deployment? If so, please provide copies of such reviews or assessments.

To what extent is your department coordinating or providing assistance to other federal agencies in order to help them purchase or otherwise obtain this technology?

Which components within your department use such devices?

Since FY 2010, how many times has such technology been deployed, and how many phones were identified or tracked by this technology, including devices used by the targets of the operation as well as non-targets whose information was accidentally swept up?

In what types of operations are these devices deployed?

Do DHS and/or DOJ obtain a court order prior to using such devices? If so, do [they] inform the courts of the number of individuals likely to be impacted; the scope of acquisition; or the specific technology being deployed?

What does the FBI require of [police] departments and agencies as part of [its] coordination process [related to state and local acquisitions of the technology]?

To what extent does your department provide assistance to state and local agencies in order to help them purchase or otherwise obtain this type of technology?

What policies and guidance govern the use, retention, and dissemination of information collected by these devices?

Do DHS and/or DOJ have policies in place requiring that individuals who are not targets be informed when their information is inadvertently collected, reviewed, or retained?

Earlier this year Massachusetts Senator Markey asked the feds for information about the US Marshals "dirtbox" cell phone surveillance program, conducted from planes. These letters come on the heels of Markey's prior requests to telecommunications companies about law enforcement demands on user information. Among other things, those earlier inquiries revealed that police and federal agencies issue over one million demands for our phone information each year.

Because the surveillance is usually secret, even from judges, we know very little about cell site simulator deployments. But last week, activists working with Anonymous published a video that appears to suggest law enforcement officials in Chicago working with the spy 'fusion' center were using a cell site simulator to monitor Black Lives Matter activists. Thanks to these senators, we're about to learn a lot more.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.