House Oversight Committee calls for clearer rules on cell-site simulators


A report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released last week, provides new details on the federal government’s use of “cell-site simulators” — cell phone surveillance devices also commonly known as Stingrays or IMSI-catchers — and suggests changes to policies governing their use.

The report confirms that federal agencies — primarily the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security — own and operate hundreds of cell-site simulators. The majority of the more than 300 devices owned by the DoJ are in the hands of the FBI, while Homeland Security’s 124 surveillance devices are distributed between the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Patrol. The Internal Revenue Service also has two IMSI-catchers, and the Treasury Inspector General has one that has never been used.

The cost of cell-site simulators is also discussed in the report, which reveals that the federal government has spent nearly $100 million on them. Individually, they range from $41,500 to up to half a million dollars per device, according to the report. This seems to line up with numbers in a product list from Harris Corporation, maker of the “Stingray” brand name IMSI-catcher, released by the police department of Rochester, New York, earlier this month.

As noted in Curtis Waltman’s reporting on that document, Harris’ devices are sold in packages ranging from $75,000 for the “StingRay Vehicular System” kit to $157,000 for the “KingFish Man-Portable System.” Training courses and maintenance can add tens of thousands to the price tag.

The new House Oversight Committee report also reveals that out of four cities picked for their “varying sizes and crime rates” and two state agencies investigated, all were found to possess at least one IMSI-catcher, while the Baltimore Police Department had three.

While reports of law enforcement use of Stingrays — which mimic cell phone towers to capture indentifying information from nearby phones — have circulated for years now, the authorities have long been tight-lipped on the details. When the House Oversight Committee began its investigation in April, 2015, the report notes, “the use of these devices by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies was not well known, and in many instances, appeared to be shrouded in secrecy.”

In the course of its investigation, the committee found “that the use of cell-site simulators by state and local law enforcement agencies was not governed by any uniform standards or policies.” It also “confirmed reports of the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements that bound law enforcement not to reveal their use of these devices,” and found that even federal agencies were using cell-site simulators according to policies that did not necessarily require them to obtain search warrants for their deployment.

The DHS and DoJ have since adopted policies requiring them to get warrants in most cases, according to the report, though Congress has not yet acted to implement a more binding legal framework regarding IMSI-catchers.

The feds claim they have only been using the surveillance devices for location tracking, rather than scooping up the content of calls, text messages, emails, photos and whatever else may be kept on a cell phone. “In testimony before the Committee, DOJ and DHS both confirmed the simulator devices they use do not intercept any communications or content from the cellular devices to which they connect,” according to the report.

Despite policies requiring IMSI-catchers to act as “pen registers” that only collect location information, however, the report also notes that the devices have capabilities that could be easily abused. “While the current DOJ and DHS policies require the cell-site simulators to be configured as pen registers and to not collect content,” it says, “some of the cell-site simulator models used by law enforcement components within DOJ and DHS would be capable of collecting content if the devices had the necessary software installed.” The report also points out that IMSI-catchers are available on the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, though civilian or “hobbyist” use of IMSI-catchers apparently “could be inconsistent with Federal law.”

The report notes that in terms of law enforcement use, “the majority of situations where a cell-site simulator is deployed involve the search for a specific, known cell phone,” but it also points out that a Stingray “can also be used as an investigative tool.” The use of IMSI-catchers in this way appears to be local law enforcement’s low-grade attempt at replicating the National Security Agency’s CO-TRAVELER surveillance program, which correlates location data of billions of phones every day to determine targets for terrorism investigations through guilt by association.

“To use the (cell-site simulator) as an investigative tool, law enforcement deploys the device at a known location of the target and obtains every IMSI number in the vicinity at the time of deployment,” according to the committee report. “By deploying the device numerous times in numerous locations where the targeted individual is present, law enforcement collects a list of IMSI numbers for each cell phone present at every location where the device was deployed. The device analyzes this list to determine if there were common IMSI numbers at each location. By a process of elimination, the common IMSI numbers are identified as likely to be those of the target’s phone, and individuals associated with the target. Law enforcement can then work with cellular service providers to determine telephone numbers and billing information associated with specific IMSI numbers.”

The report concludes that “Congress should pass legislation to establish a clear, nationwide framework for when and how geolocation information can be accessed and used.” Until Congress gets around to doing so, the report suggests non-disclosure agreements with surveillance contractors like Harris Corporation “be replaced with agreements that require clarity and candor to the court whenever a cell-site simulator has been used” and “law enforcement agencies at all levels should be candid with the courts on their use of cell-site simulator devices.”

“State and local law enforcement agencies should at a minimum adopt policies for the use of cell-site simulators that are equivalent to the new and enhanced guidelines DOJ and DHS have established for their use of these devices,” according to the report. State legislatures, meanwhile, “should enact legislation that governs how law enforcement uses cell-site simulation technology. Legislation should require, with limited exceptions, issuance of a probable cause based warrant prior to law enforcement’s use of these devices.”



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