US reviews use of cellphone spying technology

The Department of Justice aims to disclose more about the use of the cell-site simulators

Faced with criticism from lawmakers and civil rights groups, the U.S. Department of Justice has begun a review of the secretive use of cellphone surveillance technology that mimics cellphone towers, and will get more open on its use, according to a newspaper report.

The cell-site simulators, also referred to by other names such as "IMSI catchers" or Stingrays, operate by fooling mobile phones into believing that they are communicating with a legitimate cellphone tower, while harvesting data from the phone including its identity, location, metadata and even content of phone transmissions, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

One of the complaints of civil rights groups is that even when targeting a single phone, the technology can collect data on other phones in the area that connect to the simulator, raising privacy issues.

For years the Federal Bureau of Investigation used the technology without warrants, though recently the government has started approaching judges for search warrants, according to the report in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday. The newspaper had reported last year that the devices, which were referred to as "dirtboxes," were used by law enforcement from planes to track people on the ground.

Senior officials have also decided they have to be more open about the use of the devices. But there isn't agreement within the DOJ yet about how much to reveal or how quickly, WSJ said.

Some legislators have objected strongly to the surveillance. In December, senators Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, and Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa asked the federal administration for information on the "potentially broad" exceptions to a new FBI policy to obtain a search warrant before using a cell-site simulator.

The senators, for example, pointed out to FBI policy that cellphone users in public places did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore the use of cell-site simulators in such a situation did not require a search warrant.

The senators were also concerned whether the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have adequately considered the privacy interests of other individuals who are not the targets of the interception but whose information is collected by the simulator, and whether a provision for purging of information of these persons after a short period of time was adequate to protect privacy.

The state of Washington passed in April a bill to prohibit "the use of a cell site simulator device without a warrant" by the state. Some other states have passed or are in various stages of considering similar legislation.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags U.S. Federal Bureau of InvestigationU.S. Department of JusticeAmerican Civil Liberties Unionsecuritygovernmentprivacy

More about Department of JusticeDOJFBIFederal Bureau of InvestigationIDGIMSINewsWall Street

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by John Ribeiro

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place