U.S. officials have introduced new legislation aimed at clamping down on law enforcement agencies use of cell-site simulator technology that tracks criminals and monitors their cell phones, citing concerns that it also invades the privacy of innocent citizens.
The technology, often referred to as ‘Stingrays’, is basically fake cell phone towers that can pinpoint a suspected criminal's where abouts by locating their cell phone signals, and can then monitor and collect information from those phones.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said effective immediately, agencies will need to apply for a search warrant before they can use the technology to track suspected criminals.
She said that although Stingrays are a valuable crime fighting tool, their ability to collect information from people other than suspected law breakers, had forced the legislation's introduction.
"Cell-site simulator technology has been instrumental in aiding law enforcement in a broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations and complicated narcotic cases," she said.
"This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals' privacy and civil liberties.”.
The legislation is aimed mainly at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) , the United States Marshals Service, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Although it doesn't affect local police forces, some states, including Virginia, Utah, Washington and Minnesota have imposed warrant requirements.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been a long time critic of the technology that it says is used in 21 states by 53 law enforcement agencies. Although welcoming the legislation, ACLU lawyers say it was still not enough.
They say the law should apply across the board to all agencies and that it contained too many loopholes that will allow enforcers to use Stingrays without first obtaining a warrant.
The cell phone snooping technology is also used in other countries. GSMK Cryptophone, a German security firm, says it has evidence it is used in Great Britain but British police have yet to confirm or deny the claim.