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DHS Watchdog: Federal Agents Using Cell Tracking Tech Improperly

Holland McKinnie
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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General has released a report stating that the Secret Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have used cell-site simulators (CSS) without proper authorization. A CSS is a device that mimics a cell phone tower, tricking cellular devices into transmitting to it and thereby locating them. The report found that both agencies utilized the technology to locate the subjects of their investigations in real-time but only sometimes obtained the court orders required by CSS policies and federal law.

The independent watchdog recommended that ICE and the Secret Service establish internal controls to ensure compliance with federal regulations applicable to using CSS. DHS has formally accepted that recommendation. The report further noted that ICE did not secure approved privacy impact assessments before using CSS, as federal law requires.

The DHS inspector general’s report sheds light on the lack of transparency surrounding police use of surveillance technology. The Atlas of Surveillance, which tracks CSSs and other surveillance equipment across the U.S., has faced challenges in collecting data due to variations in state public records laws. Police departments have a few specific exemptions that they may apply to withhold or redact records. They will commonly apply these, like those designed to prevent “law enforcement techniques” from being withheld, in broad and sometimes completely inappropriate ways.

CSSs are particularly invasive types of police tech. The device acts like a legitimate cell phone tower to trick devices within a particular range into linking up to it. The CSS can then pinpoint the location of specific devices and sometimes harvest or alter sensitive information on them. Law enforcement considers CSSs so secret that they have been known to dismiss a criminal case rather than disclose that they used a CSS to obtain evidence.

EFF, a non-profit organization advocating for more transparency around the use of CSS, drones, and other surveillance technologies, supports local ordinances that require disclosure and elected body approval of surveillance tech measures. That would allow a city’s elected representatives to make better decisions about allocating public resources rather than relying on the unilateral decisions of unelected police officers, who tech sales people regularly lobby. 

City council approval of CSS use also helps to ensure fundamental transparency around whether a tool has been purchased and what policies are in place to guide its proper use.