WASHINGTON – Federal law enforcement officials will be routinely required to get a search warrant before using secretive and intrusive cellphone-tracking technology under a new Justice Department policy announced Thursday.
The policy, the first of its kind, is designed to create a uniform legal standard for federal law enforcement agencies using equipment known as cell-site simulators. It comes amid concerns from privacy groups and even judges that the technology, which is now widely used by local police departments, is infringing on privacy rights and is being used without proper accountability.
“The policy is really designed to address our practices, and to really try to promote transparency and consistency and accountability – all while being mindful of the public’s privacy interest,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told reporters in announcing the policy change.
The technology can sweep up basic cellphone data from a neighborhood by tricking phones in the area to believe that it’s a cell tower, allowing it to identify unique subscriber numbers. The data is then transmitted to the police, helping them determine the location of a phone without the user even making a call or sending a text message.
Besides requiring a warrant in most circumstances, except for emergencies like an immediate national security threat, the policy also requires authorities to delete data that’s been collected once they have the information that they need. In drafting a warrant, law enforcement will need to spell out how the technology works and how it will be used.
The policy could act as a blueprint for state and local law enforcement agencies in developing their own regulations. But it’s unclear how broad an impact Thursday’s announcement will have, since it does not directly affect local police agencies unless they’re working alongside federal authorities or using their assistance.
Federal law enforcement officials see the technology as vital for major criminal investigations such as kidnapping and narcotics cases. Its use in recent years has now spread to local police departments, who have been largely mum about their use of the technology, withholding materials or heavily censoring documents that they do provide.
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