A federal judge in Illinois has taken steps to regulating the usage of powerful surveillance equipment known as stingrays. The move works to protect innocent bystanders from being unlawfully subjected to unreasonable search and seizure based on the Fourth Amendment. For now, the order only applies to the Northern District of Illinois, but other judges could take similar actions in the future.
The new requirements for the use of stingrays comes a month after the Department of Homeland Security introduced its own warrant requirement. A similar move was also made by the Justice Department.
Stingrays can be used to determine the location of a person using a mobile phone by tricking the phone into thinking that the stingray is actually a cell tower. Stingrays can also be used to intercept both calls and text messages. Once a stingray is deployed, it intercepts data from a targeted phone, as well as other phones in the area.
United States Magistrate Judge Iain Johnston said that prosecutors will have to meet three distinct requirements before he will allow for the usage of the surveillance devices. Johnston said that this is a way of protecting the privacy of innocent bystanders. Johnston made the announcement as part of an ongoing drug investigation.
Investigators who want to use a stingray in Johnston’s district will need to obtain warrant, and they will not be permitted to use stingrays in public places, such as a popular sporting event. The investigators will also be required to destroy the data and prove that they have done so to the court. Furthermore, Johnston says that he will not issue a warrant unless it is absolutely necessary that stingray technology be used. He says that the devices are too powerful to be used except in extreme situations.
Privacy activists are welcoming the changes, saying that it’s a good first step. For many years, law enforcement officials have tried to keep their usage of stingrays a secret, and while upgrading the devices several times. In recent months, the devices have received increased scrutiny as new information has been made available.