Privacy SOS

Washington state shows the nation how it’s done, unanimously passing cell phone tracking legislation

The Washington state legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring law enforcement to get a warrant before tracking cell phones, and the governor signed it into law. The swift but thoughtful action in the nation's northwesternmost state should serve as a model for legislatures nationwide. Using a stingray to track someone's cell phone or wiretap its communications constitutes a search. Searches require warrants under the Fourth Amendment. This isn't hard stuff. And yet somehow, most state legislatures and governors can't manage to do what Washington did.

In some places, like California and Virginia, governors have repeatedly vetoed privacy legislation that would have placed new technologies under the protection of the Fourth Amendment. In both of those states, democratic governors sided with police and prosecutors over the public's elected representatives, apparently deciding that near limitless government power to snoop into our private lives is more important than basic human and civil rights.

Washington state doesn't play that way, though.

Ars Technica reports:

The new law has unique language requiring that not only must a probable cause-driven warrant be obtained before a stingray can be deployed but that law enforcement must explain in detail to the judge what exactly is being done.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has long supported more strigent standards surrounding stingrays, said that the new language is crucial.

"The language you point out in the Washington bill is significant because it aims to minimize the detrimental impact on bystanders whose phones are ensnared by a stingray," Nathan Wessler, an ACLU attorney, told Ars by e-mail.

"Also significant is the language requiring full disclosure to the judge of details about how and where the stingray will be used, and its capabilities and expected effect on bystanders. Only with that kind of full and accurate information can judges fulfill their constitutional duty to oversee and constrain law enforcement surveillance activities. The Washington law was prompted by revelations about police use of stingrays in Tacoma without warrants and without informing judges. As similar patterns are uncovered around the country, we expect to see similar legislation introduced elsewhere."

Congratulations, Washington state. Massachusetts, your move.

You don't have to wait for your state legislature to act to protect your communications from snoops, though. Check out this handy guide to defeating stingray spying.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.