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US lawmakers want to restrict police use of ‘Stingray’ cell tower simulators

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According to BuzzFeed news, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and Representative Ted Lieu will introduce legislation later today that seeks to limit the use of international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) police. More commonly known as Stingrays, Police often use IMSI collectors and cellular site simulators to gather information about suspects and intercept calls, SMS messages and other forms of communication. Law enforcement agencies in the United States currently do not need a mandate to use the technology. The Cell-Site Simulator Act of 2021 seeks to change that.

IMSI catchers mimic cell towers to trick cell phones into connecting with them. Once connected, they can collect data that a device sends, including their location and the subscriber’s identity key. Cell site simulators pose a double problem.

The first is that they are blurry surveillance tools. When used in an inhabited area, IMSI catchers can collects data from passers-by. The second is that they can also carry a security risk for the public. The reason for this is that while IMSI catchers act like a cell tower, they don’t function as one, and they can’t transfer calls to a public wireless network. They can therefore prevent a phone from connecting to 9-1-1. Despite the dangers they pose, their use is widespread. In 2018, u American Civil Liberties Union found at least 75 agencies in 27 states and the District of Columbia own IMSI catchers.

Trying to address those concerns, the proposed legislation would require law enforcement agencies to need to present a case before a judge so they should be allowed to use the technology. They also need to explain why other methods of surveillance will not be so effective. In addition, it seeks to ensure that those agencies delete all data they collect from those not listed in a mandate.

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Although the bill does not set a time limit for the use of the IMSI catcher, it urges agencies to use the devices for the shortest possible time. It also details exceptions where police could use the technology without a warrant. For example, it will leave the door open for law enforcement to use devices in contexts such as bomb threats where an IMSI catcher can prevent a remote detonation.

“Our bipartisan project puts an end to the secrecy and uncertainty surrounding Stingrays and other cell site simulators and replaces them with clear and transparent rules for when the government can use these invasive surveillance devices,” said Senator Ron Wyden BuzzFeed news.

The project has the support of some Republicans. Senator Steve Daines of Montana and Representative Tom McClintock of California are co-sponsors of the proposed legislation. Organizations such as the Electronic Border Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have also approved the project.

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