A federal judge dismissed evidence gathered by a warrantless cellphone-tracking device that locks onto a phone’s location by pretending to be a cell tower for the first time Tuesday.
Manhattan U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley ruled the DEA violated the defendant Raymond Lambis’ privacy rights when it used a phone-tracking device, commonly called a stingray, which spoofs a cell tower signal and latches onto nearby phones searching for service.
As Reuters reported, the agency used the stingray device to locate Lambis’ apartment in Washington Heights — the most likely place his cellphone would be.
Pauley tossed out the DEA’s search, saying in his decision that, “Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device.”
The devices also have a propensity to capture data from bystanders who aren’t the target of a law enforcement investigation.
Tuesday’s decision is a serious win for privacy advocates, who have worked to reduce the use of warrantless phone-tracking devices that are commonplace in police departments nationwide. Stingrays are used in 66 law enforcement agencies across 24 states, according to data gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Warrantless stingray use is controversial not just because of its more deceptive nature of tricking phones into thinking it’s a legitimate cell tower. The devices also have a propensity to capture data from bystanders who aren’t the target of a law enforcement investigation. In Charlotte, North Carolina, police used cell-tower spoofing devices weekly for eight years in an effort to locate violent criminals but potentially capturing the data of the nearly 1 million residents.
The Justice Department issued a new policy in 2015 aimed at reigning in stingray use that requires law enforcement agencies to get a warrant based on probably cause before employing the device in investigations. The policy also mandates agencies delete data captured by stingrays at least once every 30 days.
While Tuesday’s ruling could significantly hamper its use, it won’t keep law enforcement agencies from tracking cell phones without a court order. Other devices known as Jugulars or Wolfhounds, which use an antenna to passively pick up cellphone signals in the vicinity, are growing in popularity among police departments. Because of the legal flack law enforcement agencies have caught using stingrays, they are more careful with Wolfhounds, asking for judicial reviews in advance, but also more reticent to disclose exactly how they will be used.