A government watchdog found that the Secret Service and ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) section often broke the law when they spied on people’s cell phones in a snoopy way.
Last week, the inspector general for Homeland Security, who is in charge of keeping an eye on the U.S. government department and its many law enforcement divisions, released a report saying that the agencies often used cell-site simulators without the proper search warrants.
Cell-site simulators, which are also called “stingrays” because they look like cell towers, are pieces of surveillance equipment that law enforcement uses to trick nearby cell phones into connecting to them so they can track the phones in real time.Some more modern stingrays may be able to record phone calls and SMS messages from nearby mobile devices.
Stingrays are controversial, though, because they also catch any other object in their vicinity, even those belonging to people who have no relation to crime. Additionally, the development of stingrays is subject to strong nondisclosure agreements, which severely limit the amount of information that the general public and even the police can share about stingrays. Instead of taking a chance on disclosing confidential technical information about how cell-site simulators operate, the prosecution has withdrawn its legal actions.
The Inspector General said that because cell-site simulators are so invasive, federal agencies must first get a search warrant from a judge before using one.The Inspector General says that cell-site simulators can only be used without a warrant in urgent or emergency situations. This can include acting quickly to avoid the destruction of evidence, a threat to the nation’s security, or a cyberattack.In that case, the police must get a court order within 48 hours of setting up the cell site simulator, or they risk breaking the law by spying on people without permission.
The redacted report from the inspector general says that the Secret Service and ICE HSI “did not always get court warrants” as required by their own agency’s rules or federal law.
Two categories of issues were detailed in the watchdog report. The first is that the internal procedures governing the use of cell-site simulators in emergency situations were “inadequately interpreted” by the Secret Service and ICE HSI. In one instance, ICE HSI claimed that it did not require a warrant since the other party “gave consent.”
The use of cell-site simulators by the Secret Service and ICE HSI to support requests from regional law enforcement agencies was another issue. In one instance cited by the inspector general, a county court “could not comprehend” why prosecutors requested an emergency surveillance order because the judge “believed it to be superfluous” due to his ignorance of the statute, which resulted in a number of deployments without a warrant. The inspector general reprimanded ICE HSI in at least one other instance for being “unable to provide evidence” that it ever requested an emergency court order in a situation that was believed to be an exigent circumstance.
The Secret Service and ICE HSI both agreed with the watchdog’s six ideas, which included making internal policies and procedures stronger.
The redacted study didn’t say how often cell-site simulators had been used in the last few years.From 2017 to 2019, ICE, which is in charge of enforcing immigration laws and carrying out deportations, is known to have used stingrays hundreds of times.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital rights, blasted the report’s redactions in a blog post. “The OIG should expose this information to the public: knowing the aggregate totals would not hurt any active inquiry but instead enlighten public debate over the agencies’ dependence on this intrusive technology,” stated EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia.