Cellphone Tracking

Stingray surveillance

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The FBI has declared its right to use devices-called "stingrays" or International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers-that act like fake cell towers to monitor cell phone locations, calls, and texts, all without a warrant. The claim, made during private briefings with Senate Judiciary Committee staff, comes on the heels of a November Wall Street Journal report that small Justice Department aircraft could collect identification and location data from tens of thousands of phones per flight.

Nine states have passed laws requiring police to obtain a warrant before using a stringray to track a phone. It is unclear, however, whether citizens will know when the authorities use such devices. The Harris Corporation, a Florida-based company that manufactures the snooping tools, requires police departments to sign a non-disclosure agreement that explicitly warns them not to mention stingrays.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote a joint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder voicing concern about the FBI's position. That opposition is unlikely to gain much traction in the Obama administration, which has previously argued that the feds have the right to place GPS trackers on cars and cameras outside residences without warrants, and which has also stated that Americans have "no reasonable expectation of privacy" in cell phone use.

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