A News10 investigation recently exposed the secret use of cell phone spying technology by local law enforcement throughout California. Now, local members of Congress are weighing in for the first time on the cell-site simulators known as Stingrays.
U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, said she's concerned with the indiscriminate use of Stingray technology.
"I strongly believe we must strike the proper balance between ensuring our national security and defending our civil liberties," she said in a written statement. Matsui is the co-chair of the Congressional High-Tech Caucus.
"Whether it's the National Security Agency or a local law enforcement agency, the broad indiscriminate collection of telephone metadata is extremely troublesome. Just last month I joined my colleagues in the House in voting to shut surveillance backdoors that do not meet standards required by our Constitution," Matsui said.
Prosecutors and judges in Sacramento said they were never told Stingrays were being used in the area, despite evidence uncovered by News10 showing that the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department was utilizing the devices. The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office said they would expect to see a search warrant for the use of any real-time location tracking technology. However, they said they have never seen a warrant mentioning Stingrays.
Matsui wants more answers from the Sheriff's Department.
"Clearly more information is needed and hard questions need to be asked about the possible use of Stingray technology here in Sacramento, and in communities across the country," Matsui wrote. "I recognize that there may be a time and a place for this technology, however without proper oversight and transparency it is impossible to ensure it is not being abused and Americans' right to privacy is not being unduly infringed. Law-abiding citizens should not have their location, phone calls, and text messages indiscriminately tracked by local law enforcement agencies."
U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, said it's important to find the proper balance between privacy and safety.
"I consider it one of my highest responsibilities as a Member of Congress to protect citizens' privacy and individual liberties," Bera said in a written statement. "Government at all levels should be transparent about their practices and must find the right balance between protecting the liberty of our citizens and keeping Americans safe from the very real threats we face."
The courts have said very little about Stingrays so far, but federal judges and the U.S. Supreme Court are taking cell phone privacy seriously. The Supreme Court ruled last week that a search warrant is required by law enforcement to trawl the data on a suspect's cell phone, saying a cell phone is not just a phone, but a hand-held computer full of personal information, emails, photos and video. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled law enforcement needs a warrant to collect cell tower data, which can be used to track the past and present location of a suspect.