Privacy fears prompt congressional action

State lawmakers are becoming increasingly concerned about warrantless cellular data collection by law enforcement officials. That fear has prompted legislators to pass laws preventing it in several states, and at least one proposal in Congress would command federal agencies to follow suit.

The federal "Cell-Site Simulator Act of 2015," also known as the "Stingray Privacy Act," would require officials at the state and federal level to get a warrant before using such devices, which collect data from both suspects and innocent bystanders by spoofing cell phone towers. The bipartisan bill is being co-sponsored by House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, D-Mich., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

The legislation comes after proposals passed in several states, including California, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia and Washington, imposed similar warrant requirements on local law enforcement agencies. All of the bills received bipartisan support, and some are even stricter than the federal proposal. Washington's version, for instance, requires officers to not only obtain a warrant, but also to describe the devices in judicial proceedings. California's law, SB 178, covers privacy on the net.

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The simulators, according to officials, are used only to collect signaling data such as location, and the unique numeric identifiers connected to telephones. While they have the ability to collect the content of communication, including text messages and phone calls, officials maintain that function has never been used. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have implemented self-imposed policies requiring agents to obtain warrants before using a simulator, but the requirement is tenuous and does not apply to other agencies, such as the Department of Defense or the Internal Revenue Service.

Chris Conley, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, maintains that the privacy protections are a critical need in the digital age. "The goal of SB 178 was to protect all of the sensitive digital information that can reveal details about our personal lives," Conley told the Washington Examiner. Additionally, Conley said, the bill received support from a bipartisan coalition, "including the California Chamber of Commerce and the San Diego Police Officers Association," along with civil rights organizations and groups in Silicon Valley.

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