New bill aims to ban warrantless ‘Stingray’ cell phone surveillance

© Edgard Garrido
A new bill in the House of Representatives could make it illegal for federal, state and local government agencies to use the controversial ‘Stingray’ surveillance technology without a warrant. Violating the law would lead to up to 10 years in prison.

Stingrays, also known as IMSI catchers or cell-site simulators, are devices that sweep up cell phone information by mimicking cell towers. Authorities often use them to track down criminals, but civil liberties advocates say that its indiscriminate use is a violation of privacy due to a lack of oversight.

Representative John Chaffetz (R-Utah) introduced a bill on Monday that would make the unwarranted use of a Stingray punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

“The abuse of Stingrays and other cell site simulators by individuals, including law enforcement, could enable gross violations of privacy,” Chaffetz said in a statement introducing the bill. "The fact that law enforcement agencies, and non-law enforcement agencies such as the IRS, have invested in these devices raises serious questions about who is using this technology and why. These questions demonstrate the need for strict guidelines that carry the weight of the law."

The Chaffetz bill, which was cosponsored by Reps. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Peter Welch (D-Vermont), would apply to state and local authorities as well as federal agencies, requiring them to obtain search warrants prior to using the devices. Under certain “exceptional circumstances,” however, suggested Justice Department policy would allow the devices to still be used for warrantless surveillance. Department of Homeland Security policy would allow the Secret Service to use Stingrays without warrants as well. National security situations, such as wiretapping of certain foreigners, would also remain exempted from the need for a warrant.

The suitcase-sized gadgets that intercept all cell phone signals in an area and provide their operators with a great deal of information, Stingrays are controversial because the public is kept in the dark about the full extent of their surveillance capabilities. Metadata, location, text messages, contacts, can all be scooped up by the device, and documents recently obtained by the ACLU show that Stingrays can actually record the contents of calls.

This controversy over privacy violations and a lack of accountability when it comes to Stingrays is intensified by the fact that it isn’t clear which government agencies own and use the spying technology. Just last week, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was revealed to be the 13th known federal agency to have purchased the device. In addition to federal agencies, 57 government organizations in 22 states and the District of Columbia are known to have Stingrays.

READ MORE: Revealed: IRS owned Stingray cellphone surveillance equipment

The IRS has already been in hot water with Chaffetz and other House Republicans. They are seeking to impeach the tax agency’s Commissioner John Koskinen over accusations of political targeting of conservative groups that sought tax exemptions by registering as nonprofits.