DOJ revises cell-site simulator policy, broadens warrant requirement for cell phone surveillance

DOJ revises cell-site simulator policy, broadens warrant requirement for cell phone surveillance

[JURIST] The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] on Thursday announced [press release] a new department-wide policy [text] that increases the number of instances in which US law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to use cell-site technology. Law enforcement agents use cell-site technology to locate cellular devices by acting as a cell-tower; so that cellular devices in the nearby area can transmit signals to the simulator. Under the new policy, officers are required to obtain a search warrant before using the simulators, unless there are limited exceptional circumstances and are prohibited from collecting any data from the phone; such as images, emails, or texts. The guidelines also state that agents must delete all the data from any devices obtained, and every office must submit a record of the number of times it has used cell-site simulators to its agency headquarters. The DOJ stated the new policy will increase privacy protections and make practices more consistent throughout the department.

The revelations surrounding National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs [JURIST backgrounder] have sparked worldwide debate and concern over citizens’ privacy. Earlier this year, current and former US officials released [JURIST report] a report stating that less than 30 percent of all Americans’ phone records are being collected due to the inability to keep up with the increased use of cellular phones. In late January the American Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] (ACLU) filed a motion [JURIST report] on behalf of terror suspect Jamshid Muhtorov to suppress evidence the NSA obtained from surveillance conducted pursuant to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. Also that month the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board [official website], an independent agency created by Congress to protect American privacy under anti-terrorism laws, issued a report [JURIST report] calling the NSA’s metadata program illegal and saying that it should be ended. Earlier in January President Barack Obama announced [JURIST report] detailed plans to change surveillance policy, curbing the abilities of intelligence agencies to collect and use Americans’ phone data. The DOJ filed an appeal that same month to a federal district court ruling that held that the NSA program is likely unconstitutional [JURIST reports].