NBC-2 posted the story online that included my interview about the use of cell-phone tower imitators, that go by the brand name of Stingrays, and how they are being used to collect people’s data. There are still a lot of questions about the use of these devices, in part because the government is being so secretive about it. In many cases, their use can be legal, but they should definitely implement oversight, and get oversight from the courts by seeking warrants when they are being used.
For more in the issue, USA Today has been following the issue, and has a section devoted to it, here: http://www.usatoday.com/topic/f764896f-76b5-4789-a58e-e333b9b5bcfc/cellphone-surveillance/
And here is the NBC-2 story from last night: http://www.nbc-2.com/story/34124137/cell-phone-interceptors-used-by-govt-agency-to-gather-information
This week a federal court ruled that evidence collected by use of a Stingray was inadmissible where a warrant was not obtained. Stingrays are devices that mimic cell phone towers. They allow government agents to track the whereabouts of cell phones without the knowledge of the cell phone users. It is unknown how many agencies employ the use of Stingrays, because they also promise to keep them secret when they acquire them.
The DOJ issued a policy that their agents are supposed to get warrants before using the devices. That was a smart move, predicting the legal outcome when the Stingray evidence was challenged. This investigation occurred before that change in policy, and if the Feds had continued to collect this evidence without warrants… a lot more cases would be in Jeopardy. The DOJ policy does not govern local law enforcement agencies, who stand to have a lot of evidence in jeopardy if they have not been obtaining warrants, in light of this Federal Court decision.
This is a major victory for privacy advocates. It has long been the practice in most jurisdictions that if the cops get ahold of a suspects cell phone, they could just start going through it, particularly if that seizure was subject to an arrest. The Court’s ruling today says there is no exigency to justify the search, and there’s no reason that the government could not obtain a warrant before proceeding with the search. This follows a decision, Missouri v. McNeeley, by the U.S. Supreme Court that found that just because someone was suspected of DUI, the cops should get a warrant before ordering a blood draw.
Neither of these decisions prevent law enforcement activity. These decisions merely require that law enforcement obtain a warrant for certain kinds of searches. These decisions limit the scope of when a search can be conducted without a warrant, and strengthen the Constitutional safeguards that we enjoy in the United States and here in Florida.
Update: clarification that today’s decision was by the Florida Supreme Court