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Cell phone tracking method has privacy rights groups worried

This little-known tracking device has been used since 2008 to identify suspects’ whereabouts — and even intercept calls and texts

Anyone who has ever watched a police procedural is aware of wiretapping – recording phone conversations of suspects after obtaining a warrant to do so from a judge.

With the prevalence of smartphones, the technology police and federal agencies use to obtain data on suspects is constantly evolving. And these often push the boundaries of the constitutional rights of citizens.

One such device is a “StingRay.”

StingRays” track cell phones even when not in use

The cell phone in your pocket is constantly emitting signals, whether you are using it or not. 

Some police departments across the country are using “StingRays” or cell-site simulators, which mimic the behavior of cell towers and can pinpoint a cellphone’s location even if the owner is not calling or texting on it. Police departments in 24 states use the device, as do 13 federal agencies, according to the Associated Press. A cell site simulator is about the size of a briefcase and can track cellphones throughout an entire neighborhood. It was originally developed by the military.

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the NYPD to reveal to the public that it had used a StingRay over 1,000 times since 2008. Police departments that use the device have had to sign nondisclosure agreements with the FBI. Absent the required disclosure by the NYPD, it is not clear the public would be aware of these devices.

Is there such a thing as privacy anymore?

The ability to have your movements tracked at all times, including by law enforcement, simply because you have a phone in your pocket can be disconcerting.

Still, criminal defendants do have Fourth Amendment protections. For example, a New York judge recently held that the NYPD required an eavesdropping warrant to use the device. This is a higher standard than the typical “probable cause” needed to search a suspect’s vehicle and other investigative techniques.

As technology evolves, so too do police investigations. Those new techniques should not come at the expense of our constitutional rights.

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