A rare alliance of Democratic and Republican members of the US Congress could lead to increased restrictions on how police officers can deploy so-called Stingray cell phone trackers. These devices are regularly used to investigate suspected criminals, but the nature of the system means a lot of innocent Americans are caught up in the dragnet. This bill would force police to get warrants before using Stingrays.

The legislation was introduced Wednesday, and is called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act. Congress does love its clever acronyms. The bill was sponsored by unlikely allies Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich). That means essentially the same bill exists in the House and Senate, which both need to pass the legislation before it can become a law.

Stingrays are roughly the size of a suitcase, and act like portable cell towers. They are special IMSI-catchers manufactured by Harris Corporation, and originally intended for military use. Stingrays are most commonly used for tracking mobile phones, but they can do much more. When operating in active mode, they use high transmission power to force all nearby cell phones to connect as if the Stingray was a carrier cell tower. That gives the operator access to all the data passing between the tower and the phone. That can mean simply monitoring a device’s location or eavesdropping on phone calls and extracting encryption keys.

stingray

Police have long maintained that the use of Stingrays does not constitute a “search,” and as such does not require a warrant. The GPS bill seeks to force warrants before a Stingray could be used. That wouldn’t stop Stingrays from being used in the US, of course. However, it would vastly reduce the frequency. Civil liberties groups have pointed to the large number of Stingray deployments as an issue. In 2014, Florida police revealed they had used such devices more than 200 times in 2010 without getting warrants. Harris Corporation also imposes strict rules about what can be disclosed by police about Stingray operation, which may run afoul of constitutional protections.

The GPS bill is supported by privacy and civil liberties groups like the ACLU. The legislation would primarily target local law enforcement, which is the most cavalier about the use of Stingrays. The FBI changed its procedures in 2015 to require agents to get a warrant before deploying Stingrays. If the bill is passed by Congress, it’s up to President Trump to sign it. If law enforcement groups oppose it, he may decline to do so.

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