D.C. Court Rules Against Tracking Cell Phones Without a Warrant

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a big blow to one of law enforcement’s favorite new techniques, the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that using a Stingray without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unlawful search and seizure. Stingrays are known more formally as “cell-site simulators,” mimicking the function of a cell-phone tower and used to track a phone’s location (the nickname comes from Harris Corp’s StingRay line of devices).

In the case of Prince Jones, the court ruled that “the use of a cell-site simulator to locate a person through his or her cellphone invades the person’s actual, legitimate and reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her location information and is a search.”

Stingrays are a controversial technology, because there is little formal regulation of how they should be used. Law-enforcement agencies are usually very secretive about when they use them and how, and what data they collect from them. Commenting on leaked instruction manuals last year, one tech expert told the Intercept, “The ease with which the StingRay II can be used is quite striking and there do not seem to be any technical safeguards against misuse.”

D.C. Court Rules Against Tracking Phones Without a Warrant