June 17, 2021

Wyden, Lieu, Daines and McClintock Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Require Warrants for Government Use of “Stingray” Phone Surveillance

Bill Protects Americans’ Rights by Ending Warrantless Use of Cell Site Simulators to Track Mobile Phones; Allows Law Enforcement Use with a Warrant, Similar to Existing Wiretap Rules

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., with Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., introduced legislation today to defend Americans’ rights by requiring the government to get a warrant to deploy cell site simulators, also known as “stingray” devices, which are used by law enforcement agencies to track individuals and identify all the phones in an area.

The bipartisan Cell Site Simulator Warrant Act puts an end to overlapping, confusing policies and laws at the federal, state and local levels by creating clear legal standards for use of cell site simulators by any government agency.

“Cell site simulators have existed in a kind of legal no-man’s land for far too long. Our bipartisan bill ends the secrecy and uncertainty around stingrays and other cell site simulators and replaces it with clear, transparent rules for when the government can use these invasive surveillance devices,” Wyden said. “The Cell Site Simulator Warrant Act gives law enforcement the tools it needs to investigate crimes, while ensuring that Americans’ rights are fully protected.”

“Cell site simulators (CSS) are incredibly powerful tools that mimic cell towers and, in an often overly broad way, trick phones into giving up sensitive data. In violation of basic constitutional principles, these devices can capture a massive amount of metadata and content from a broad swath of devices all at once. In response to concerning reports that CSS have been deployed on BLM protestors and others expressing their First Amendment rights, and in defense of privacy and civil liberties, I am proud to join my colleagues on a bipartisan basis to institute common sense limitations on how these surveillance devices can be used,” Lieu said.

“We need to protect Montanans and Americans from big government surveillance, including from the use of cell site simulators—that’s why there needs to be clear rules in place. Montana has already enacted commonsense warrant requirements for stingray use so it’s time to make this the law of the land through our bipartisan bill which does just that,” Daines said.

“The Fourth Amendment means what it says, even in the digital age,” McClintock said.

The bill is supported by a broad array of civil liberties advocates, including Americans for Prosperity, the Brennan Center for Justice, Center for Democracy and Technology, Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Electronic Privacy Information Center, FreedomWorks, Free Press Action, Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability, Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen, Public Knowledge, and Restore The Fourth.

The Cell Site Simulator Warrant Act:

  • Establishes a probable cause warrant requirement for federal, state & local law enforcement agencies to use a CSS. Like wiretaps, CSS must be a tool of last resort, used when other methods have or are likely to fail.
  • Permits emergency use, enabling the government to get a court order after the fact.
  • Requires that judges be informed about all potential side effects, including jamming 9-1-1 calls, as determined by an independent lab, and requires judges to weigh the government’s surveillance interests against the impact to the community & public safety.
  • Requires that data collected using a CSS from bystanders’ devices be minimized.
  • Creates similar rules for intelligence agencies’ use of CSS authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, including targeting of Americans abroad.
  • Provides for fines up to $250,000 for entities that illegally operate a CSS, but with an exception for use of a CSS by those engaged in good-faith research or teaching.
  • Provides for a private right of action by individuals who were illegally surveilled.
  • Requires annual Inspector General reports on federal agencies’ use of CSS.

Read a summary of the bill here and text of the legislation here.

This legislation is the latest in Wyden’s years-long effort to conduct oversight in the government’s use of cell site simulators. In 2017, Wyden and other senators asked the Justice Department to update its policy to inform judges of the devices’ potential to interfere with 9-1-1 and other calls. In 2018, Wyden renewed that request, and later asked the Federal Communications Commission to ensure cell site simulators do not disrupt emergency calls.