House report urges clearer guidance on cellphone technology

WASHINGTON (AP) — Clearer guidelines are needed for law enforcement's use of secretive and intrusive cellphone tracking technology, and police and federal agents should be upfront with a judge about their deployment, a House committee said in a report Monday.

The report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee examines the use of cell-site simulators — including suitcase-sized devices known as stingrays — by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The technology works by mimicking a cellphone tower, allowing law enforcement to collect basic data — such as a unique identifying number — from the cellphones in a particular targeted area.

The surveillance devices have been broadly adopted by police departments and federal agencies, which see them as vital in helping track the location of criminal suspects. But the technology has raised Fourth Amendment concerns among privacy for its ability to gather data about innocent bystanders as well as the targets of an investigation.

"While law enforcement agencies should be able to utilize technology as a tool to help officers be safe and accomplish their missions, absent proper oversight and safeguards, the domestic use of cell-site simulators may well infringe upon the constitutional rights of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the right to free association," the report states.

The House committee makes several recommendations, including calling on state and local agencies to adopt policies that are on par with those in use by the federal departments of Justice and Homeland Security. The report also says that non-disclosure agreements prohibiting police officers from describing their use of the devices in court "should be replaced with agreements that require clarity and candor to the court whenever a cell-site simulator has been used by law enforcement in a criminal investigation."

And it said the federal government should make funding to local agencies for cell-site simulators contingent on a requirement that they adopt "new and enhanced" guidelines of the Justice and Homeland Security departments.

The Justice Department, which the report says spent more than $71 million between fiscal years 2010 and 2014 to acquire cellphone tracking devices, issued new guidance last year aimed at ensuing that federal law enforcement officials obtain a search warrant before using cellphone tracking technology. The policy applied only to federal agencies within the Justice Department and not, as some privacy advocates had hoped, to state and local law enforcement.

The report Monday said a broader legal framework was needed to cover local agencies as well.

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