It could soon be illegal for police to deploy stingray surveillance technology, which sweeps up cell phone metadata and voice information, without a warrant. A new House of Representatives bill would make any violations to that policy punishable with up to 10 years in prison.
Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah introduced a bill Monday that aims to prevent state and federal law enforcement agencies from using the increasingly controversial investigative tool without a warrant.
Stingrays essentially mimic the signal from a cell phone tower, forcing many phones in the area to connect with the suitcase-sized device and thus provide information on a user's location, text messages, call logs, contacts and other sensitive data that would otherwise require a warrant. Police departments keep details on when and why stingrays are used secret, though the American Civil Liberties Union reports that at least 57 agencies in 22 states and the District of Columbia have stingrays or related tools.
“The abuse of stingrays and other cell site simulators by individuals, including law enforcement, could enable gross violations of privacy,” Chaffetz said in a statement Monday. “The fact that law enforcement agencies, and non-law enforcement agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, have invested in these devices raises serious questions about who is using this technology and why. These questions demonstrate the need for strict guidelines that carry the weight of the law.”
The bill comes after the head of the IRS told a Senate committee the government's tax collection agency uses stingrays with a court order, not a warrant. It also coincides with the release of federal documents that prove the long held suspicion that stingrays can record the content of voice conversations.