A group of bipartisan senators petitioned the Department of Justice to disclose details about law enforcement’s use of cell-site simulator devices known as Stingrays.
A group of senators, including three Democrats and one Republican, jointly submitted a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting information about the effects of Stingray devices on the general public. Stingray devices work by masquerading as the cell tower antennas of wireless companies and sending out signals that force all cell phones in the area to transmit their locations and identifying information to the device. While cell site location information gathered by actual cell towers can typically give a general location of a cell phone, cell-site simulators like Stingrays can pinpoint a phone’s precise location as long as the phone is turned on. This is true even when the target is not actively using the phone at the time. Additionally, when law enforcement uses a cell-site simulator on a particular device it prevents communication between that target phone and the network’s cell tower. This renders the phone unable to make or receive calls during the time that—unbeknownst the phone’s user—it is connected to the simulator.
Stingrays or similar devices have been used by state, local, and federal law enforcement around the country for more than 20 years, but according to critics, their use has been shrouded in secrecy. This secrecy, the senators urge, raises concerns that judges who approve requests to deploy Stingray devices may not understand the full implications of their use. For example, in addition to sending signals to the target device, a Stingray also sends signals into the homes of everyone in the surrounding area. Critics are also troubled by the Stingray’s disruption to cell service. According to the senators’ letter, Canadian law enforcement determined that Stingrays can block 911 calls and advised its officers to weigh the technology’s benefits against the potential harm to the general public in deciding whether to use the device.
The senators’ letter puts much-needed attention on Stingray devices and their effects on the rights of both criminal defendants and the general public. Defense attorneys should be aware of the developments in this area and should determine at the outset of any criminal matter involving cell phones whether cell-site simulators were used to gather information about the defendant. Attorneys should be prepared to challenge information gathered from the devices on Fourth Amendment grounds, particularly if it appears a Judge’s approval of their use was not fully informed.
What Happens Next?
The senators asked that DOJ respond to their letter by August 25. They specifically asked the Attorney General to explain whether he disagrees with Canada’s finding that Stingray devices can block 911 calls, and to disclose whether the FBI has tested the cell-site simulators it uses to determine how much they interfere with nearby phones.