SACRAMENTO, Calif. (June 1, 2015) – A California bill that would end the warrantless use of “stingrays” to track the location of phones and sweep up electronic communications in most cases passed out of a final state Senate committee on Friday. The bill would not only protect privacy in California, but would also hinder part of the federal surveillance state.
Sen. Mark Leno (D) and Sen. Joel Anderson (R) introduced Senate Bill 179 (SB178) in February. The bill would prohibit a government entity from compelling the production of or access to electronic communication information or electronic device information without a search warrant or wiretap order, with only a few exceptions.
SB 179 passed the appropriations committee 7-0 on May 28. The bill previously passed the Committee on Public Safety 6-1. The measure now moves on to the full Senate for consideration.
Cell site simulators, known as “stingrays,” spoof cell phone towers. Any device within range is essentially tricked into connecting to the stingray instead of the tower, allowing law enforcement to sweep up communications content, as well as locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone or other electronic device. SB179 would require a warrant or wiretap order before police could deploy these devices under most circumstances.
The legislation would also require law enforcement to obtain a warrant or wiretap order before compelling any person other than the owner of the device to produce electronic information. This specifically includes third party providers.
Exceptions to the warrant requirement include if police in good faith believe an emergency situation exists, if the device is lost or stolen, or with the consent of the owner or a person authorized to possess the device.
The legislation also stipulates that law enforcement gather no more information than is necessary to achieve the objective of the search, and imposes other conditions on the use of the search warrant or wiretap order and the information obtained, including retention and disclosure requirements. Information obtained in violation of these provisions would be inadmissible in criminal, civil, or administrative proceedings.
SB179 works together with a second bill moving through the California legislative process to create a powerful one-two punch against the use of stingray devices.
SB741 would prohibit a local agency from acquiring or using a stingray device unless “approved by a resolution or ordinance adopted by its legislative body at a regularly scheduled public meeting where the public has a reasonable opportunity to comment.” The bill also requires the resolution or ordinance to set forth policies on stingray use based on specific guidelines outlined in the legislation.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL STINGRAY PROGRAMS
The federal government funds the vast majority of state and local stingray programs, attaching one important condition. The feds require agencies acquiring the technology to sign non-disclosure agreements, as alluded to by the Tacoma police chief. This throws a giant shroud over the program, even preventing judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys from getting information about the use of stingrays in court. The feds actually instruct prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information.The Baltimore Sun reported that last fall, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions on the stand during a trial, citing a federal non-disclosure agreement.
Defense attorney Joshua Insley asked Cabreja about the agreement.
“Does this document instruct you to withhold evidence from the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to produce?” he asked.
“Yes,” Cabreja said.
As privacysos.org put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”
The feds sell the technology in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts. With non-disclosure agreements in place, most police departments refuse to release any information on the use of stingrays. But information obtained from the Tacoma Police Department revealed that it uses the technology primarily for routine criminal investigations.
Some privacy advocates argue that stingray use can never happen within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment because the technology necessarily connects to every electronic device within range, not just the one held by the target. And the information collected by these devices undoubtedly ends up in federal data bases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, stingrays create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.
According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.
The federal government encourages and funds stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S., thereby undoubtedly gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on stingray use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.
By making information “obtained” in violation of the law inadmissible in court, SB741 would effectively stop one practical effect of NSA spying in Florida.
Reuters revealed the extent of such NSA data sharing with state and local law enforcement in an August 2013 article. According to documents obtained by the news agency, the NSA passes information to police through a formerly secret DEA unit known Special Operations Divisions and the cases “rarely involve national security issues.” Almost all of the information involves regular criminal investigations, not terror-related investigations.
In other words, not only does the NSA collect and store this data, using it to build profiles, the agency encourages state and local law enforcement to violate the Fourth Amendment by making use of this information in their day-to-day investigations.
This is “the most threatening situation to our constitutional republic since the Civil War,” Binney said.