Utah May Ban Warrantless Use of ‘Stingray’ Devices

Bill to ban warrantless searches passes Utah House of Representatives with overwhelming support.

Women use their cellphones on Jan. 7, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Utah lawmakers want to ban "Stingray" devices, which sweep up all wireless phone data in a targeted area by pretending to be a legitimate cell tower.

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Utah may soon become one of the first states to restrict the use of “Stingray” devices that intercept and store cellphone communications and location data.

Stingrays sweep up all wireless phone data in a targeted area by pretending to be a legitimate cell tower. The portable technology, approximately the size of a suitcase, has been used by police to locate fugitives – if police know their target’s phone number – and to collect information on protesters.

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Civil libertarians fear the bulk data collection, which in most states can be conducted without a warrant, escapes judicial review and allows police access to information most service providers insist on a warrant or court order before giving up.

The Utah House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Monday to ban this type of freewheeling electronic surveillance.

In a 71-2 vote the state House passed legislation to require police to get a warrant before using a Stingray or collecting electronic communication data from companies.

The bill says “a government entity may not obtain the location information, stored data, or transmitted data of an electronic device without a search warrant issued by a court upon probable cause.” It contains exceptions for emergencies or if a device’s owner grants permission.

Utah state Rep. Ryan Wilcox, a Republican, introduced the bill as a pre-emptive strike.

“This is something we’ve seen come up around the country and we don’t want it to happen in Utah,” Wilcox tells U.S. News. “We’re seeking to ensure that if and when that happens we’re still honoring the Fourth Amendment.”

The bill wouldn’t necessarily outlaw the use of Stingrays, Wilcox says, but would require a warrant before one is used and that all data not relevant to the specified criminal investigation be destroyed. The investigation's target would also need to be notified if his or her records were taken.

Wilcox works for Sprint and is unaware if any Utah law enforcement agency currently owns or uses a Stingray. 

“It is intended to prevent the sort-of, ‘let’s cast a net out and see what we find,’” Wilcox says. “Right now government entities have the ability to take a look at our digital papers and effects not only without a warrant, but without notification, so that’s another important part of the bill.”

The bill now goes to the Utah Senate for approval.

If the bill rapidly becomes law, Utah would be the third state after Maine and Montana to require a warrant for all cellphone location information and the second state after Texas to comprehensively require warrants for electronic communications, according to Allie Bohm, advocacy and policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union. 

The ACLU recently surveyed U.S. law enforcement agencies and found "the state of practice is in chaos, with different agencies in different states following different procedures and some of them having no procedures in place whatsoever" for collecting location and communications data, Bohm says.

Other state legislatures are considering bills to restrain the use of Stingrays. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled Feb. 18 police must generally obtain a warrant before acquiring a criminal suspect’s cellphone location data.

Although it’s unclear if Utah police use Stingray devices, their use elsewhere has evoked curiosity and outrage.

The ACLU wrote in a Monday blog post that Florida police appear to have concealed from a judge and a criminal defendant their use of a Stingray to trace a stolen cellphone because of a nondisclosure agreement with the device’s manufacturer. The post says court documents show Tallahassee, Fla., police used stingrays 100 times without a warrant as of 2010.

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In Indiana, state senators are sponsoring legislation to prevent the warrantless collection of cellphone location data after the Indianapolis Star reported in December that state police paid $373,995 for a Stingray device for unspecified purposes.

Many details about use of the devices and what is done with data collected by local law enforcement remains murky. LA Weekly, for example, reported in January 2013 the Los Angeles Police Department used Stingrays 21 times in a four-month period, apparently without warrants for unspecified investigations. Department of Homeland Security funds allowed the department to acquire the technology sometime around 2006, the publication reported.

National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s disclosures about dragnet federal programs that sweep up U.S. phone and Internet data spurred greater interest in the use of Stingrays and fear about their impact on Americans’ civil liberties.

In one of the more surprising uses of Stingrays, reported by technology news website Ars Technica in September, Miami-Dade police bought a $115,500 device from Harris Corporation in 2003 to monitor protesters at a free trade conference, according to a procurement form.