Bill Restricts Use of Invasive Surveillance Devices

April 17, 2015

SEATTLE - In a bipartisan action, the Washington Legislature has approved legislation to regulate government use of cell site simulator devices, better known as Stingrays. The bill, HB 1440 – “Prohibiting the use of a cell site simulator device without a warrant,” passed the House by a unanimous vote yesterday after the Senate also had passed it unanimously. It now awaits Governor Inslee’s signature to become law.

“The measure will make Washington state a national leader in controlling this controversial surveillance technology.  The legislature recognized that protections are needed to ensure that government does not use Stingrays to invade the privacy of law-abiding people,” said Jared Friend, Technology and Liberty Director of the ACLU of Washington. “Stingrays are emblematic of advancing technologies that are providing government with new surveillance capabilities and need to be regulated,” he added.

Stingrays are surveillance devices that mimic the cell phone towers that phones connect to. They trick all cell phones within range of the device into thinking that they are a legitimate cell phone tower and force the phones to connect by masquerading as the strongest nearby cell signal. This enables the government use a Stingray to identify phones in the area, the location of the possessors of those phones, and in some cases to intercept metadata and/or actual content of cell phone transmissions (be it data, calls, or text messages).

“Even if law enforcement is targeting a particular phone or person, a Stingray will collect sensitive information from all other phones in the area that connect to the cell site simulator. This compromises the privacy of a large number of innocent bystanders,” explained the ACLU’s Jared Friend.

The bill requires that law enforcement demonstrate to a judge that there is probable cause of suspected criminal activity prior to using a cell site simulator. The measure also places limitations on retention of data collected by cell site simulators, requiring that any incidental information collected about innocent bystanders not be used and be deleted promptly.

A controversy arose in Pierce County last August when The News Tribune revealed that local law enforcement had been using a Stingray, without prior public awareness or debate. The TNT also reported that judges in Pierce County had been signing off on orders for Stingray surveillance without a clear picture of their invasiveness and their effects on innocent bystanders. According, the bill contains valuable protections to ensure that judges are educated about the nature of these devices.

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