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Stingray Technology Creating Public Concern

Earlier this summer, we discussed whether a warrant should be required for the government to access phone location data. Courts have reached differing decisions on whether the government should be able to access that data from phone companies without a warrant.

However, some police departments have acquired and used a technology dubbed Stingray to gain access to this data while circumventing the process of requesting the data from the phone company. The Stingray is a type of "cell-site simulator technology" that functions as a cell tower. Nearby cell phones will identify the Stingray as the closest and strongest tower available, and then transmit their data to the Stingray instead of a cell tower. This enables the government to track the location of a particular cell phone by analyzing the strength and direction of the signal.

Recent guidelines released by the United States Justice Department indicate that Stingray technology must be "configured as pen registers," so that the only information received is the signal strength and relative direction of the phone in question. It also requires the federal government to obtain a warrant unless certain exceptions apply. These guidelines only apply to the federal government, however, and have many concerned that Stingray technology is able and has been used to listen to phone calls and intercept text messages by local and state police. Making the issue more difficult is that local and state police that acquired the technology from the FBI generally have signed non-disclosure agreements. These departments are then not free to disclose whether they have used the technology, what cases they have used the technology in, and how they are using the technology. Some departments have supported the non-disclosure agreements as an attempt to ensure that criminals do not gain access to similar technology.

Still, the secrecy with which Stingray technology is being handled and its capability to intrude into very private parts of citizens' lives has led to significant public concern over the usage of the technology.

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