ANNAPOLIS — During a first-of-its-kind public hearing, law enforcement officials detailed how cell site simulators are used as they addressed arguments from privacy proponents about the technology’s infringing on privacy rights.
They said the technology does not track cellphone numbers or usage data from cellphones, such as text messages, emails or photos, but instead tracks electronic serial identifying numbers unique to each phone. Those numbers are distinctly different from the number someone dials to call a phone.
“Stingray” technology is used by law enforcement in various parts of the state, including Montgomery and Baltimore. During a state House Judiciary Committee, law enforcement officials revealed the state police tracked phones 50 times last year using the device while it’s been used more frequently in the City of Baltimore. The extent of its use in Montgomery County did not come up at the hearing, and Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger said he did not want to comment on the bill because he had not read it.
State Del. Charles Sydnor III (D-44B) of Baltimore County introduced a bill that would require a law enforcement officer to obtain a court order to use a cell site simulator device.
According to the summary of House Bill 904, it would also require “an application for use of a cell site simulator device to contain specified information.”
It would also require a law enforcement agency “to take specified actions” in order to use it and it would limit the period of time “during which information may be obtained under an order authorizing the use of a cell site simulator device.”
Under the bill, Stingray users would have to start collecting electronic serial numbers from cellphones within 10 days and would have up to 30 days to completely obtain information from the targeted phones, though that could be extended.
No one from Montgomery County testified on behalf or against of a bill last Thursday in the state House Judiciary Committee.
Proponents and opponents of the way the technology is currently used agreed the device mimics as a cellphone tower, detecting a specific type of identifier from cellphones in a few-hundred-yard radius of the simulator. It tracks electronic serial numbers instead of actual phone numbers.
They disagreed about whether it collects data. To the law enforcement officials, most cellphone users don’t know their phone’s unique electronic serial number, so they should not expect privacy for something they reveal “to a third-party carrier who assigned it from a third party.”
While the law enforcement officials said they cannot use the cell site simulators to view text messages, photos or anything someone stores in a phone other than the electronic serial numbers, the privacy advocates said the technology still needs to be regulated.
“We’re not trying to prohibit law enforcement from using it,” said Sydnor. “It mandates them to maintain a warrant.”
Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney of the ACLU, said the chief concerns for the technology include the cell site simulators scooping up data from bystanders. The technology can be used in homes and should only be used with “probable cause.”
“Law enforcement have been using these for years, but they have not told judges what they’re doing,” said Sara Love of the ACLU of Maryland.
“We never hear your voice,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, adding law enforcement personnel do not look at text messages, emails or pictures by using Stingray systems.
Shellenberger and three other law enforcement officials made the case that they obtain court orders when tracking unique cellphone identifier numbers but the bill’s mandates about obtaining those court orders would hinder their ability to track the phones efficiently.
During a more expansive canvassing operation, cell site simulators scan electronic serial numbers and discard the ones investigators don’t need while serving as a faux cellphone tower.
“It pretends to be that tower. I admit that,” said Shellenberger.
The technology can track a phone with the targeted electronic serial number “within in 6 feet of the phone. That’s how close it can be.”
He added there is “no print out” of a stray electronic serial number from a bystander’s phone “because really, that number means nothing” to law enforcement.