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Justice Adopts New Policies for Simulated Cell Sites

The Justice Department said Thursday (Sept. 3) that it has issued new policies for use of cell-site simulators (sometimes referred to as a stingray) that it says will increase transparency and accountability of the tracking technology, as well as increase privacy protections.

The devices simulate a cell tower and allow law enforcement to collect location information to help them identify the source of a cellular signal and locate phones and other devices, and their users (

They have drawn criticism, including from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).), but Justice calls them critical technology that are used "in the fraction of cases in which the capability is best suited to achieve specific public safety objectives."

The changes went into effect immediately. They include requirements about the treatment of information collected through the simulators and an audit to insure it is being deleted in accordance with the new policy. Justice said that, for example, "when the equipment is used to locate a known cellular device, all data must be deleted as soon as that device is located, and no less than once daily."

The policy also make clear that the simulators can't collect the contents of any communications they use for location information, including e-mails, texts, contacts lists, and images.

While DOJ said it has been using appropriate legal authority, the new policy states explicitly that a probable cause warrant must be obtained before use of the simulators with a carve-out for situations where the law does not require it because it would be "impracticable."

"“It’s good that, in response to my inquiries, the Department of Justice has now committed to a transparent and uniform policy requiring agents to fully inform and seek approval from judges on the use of cell-site simulators," Grassley said in a statement.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.