It’s a device smaller than a briefcase, but it may be the most powerful surveillance technology most Americans have never heard of.
They’re known as cell-site simulators, or by the brand name Stingray. Your cellphone mistakenly recognizes them as cellphone towers, allowing operators to gather huge amounts of data, including your location, the content of your messages and web browsing information. The devices can be mounted to moving vehicles and even aircraft.
It may sound like a gadget from a dystopian crime thriller, but they’re very real, and becoming more common.
At least 73 agencies in 25 states and Washington, D.C. are now using the devices, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report this year, including most of Iowa’s neighbors. As far as we know, Iowa law enforcement agencies have not yet adopted these tools. However, ACLU leaders emphasize their figures are only the minimum, based on publicly available documents and news reports. Other organizations may be employing cell-site simulators without disclosing their activities. In the absence of necessary privacy regulations, innocent Iowans’ private cellphone data could be swept up en masse.
Former Iowa Rep. Ken Rizer, a Republican and a military veteran, sponsored a bill in 2016 to establish an Iowa Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The legislation would have prohibited government entities from accessing information on Iowans’ electronic devices without a warrant or court order, but it failed to advance out of the Republican-controlled Public Safety Committee.
At the federal level, Sen. Chuck Grassley has been a leading proponent of regulating the use of cellphone surveillance by government agents. After repeated contacts from Grassley and Sen. Patrick Leahy, both the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security in 2015 adopted rules requiring warrants for the use of cell-site simulators, but their policies still allow for potentially broad exceptions, and require little oversight.
“While these devices can be useful tools for identifying the location of a suspect’s cellphone or identifying an unknown cellphone, they also present significant privacy concerns because they gather information about the cellphones of many people who are not investigative targets but happen to be in the vicinity,” Grassley and Leahy wrote in a 2015 letter.
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At least 13 federal agencies are known to conduct surveillance this way, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration and even the Internal Revenue Service. That lineup makes it seem highly unlikely the technology is only being used against our most dangerous criminals.
The best way to fend off creeping surveillance technology may be at the local level, and Iowa City provides an example. In 2013, citizens petitioned for an ordinance banning traffic cameras, surveillance drones and automatic license-plate readers.
Americans once fought a revolution over the government’s warrantless searches and seizures. Left unchecked, cellphone surveillance technology will make criminal suspects of us all.
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