BREAKING: Judge Issues Important Cellphone Privacy Ruling

Privacy advocates are celebrating today, in the wake of a court ruling against law enforcement use of devices that intercept cell phone and internet traffic.

The Daily Caller reports that Justice Martin Murphy of Brooklyn has ruled against the New York Police Department’s use of devices called cell-site simulators without first obtaining warrants.

These simulators obtain the data by essentially tricking cell phones into thinking they are cell towers. The NYPD argued they didn’t need warrants to use them because the devices only monitor data and don’t record the content itself — an argument the judge didn’t buy:

New York is one of several jurisdictions that are facing legal action to further regulate police use of the devices. The first city in the United States to take action was Silicon Valley, requiring law enforcement to receive prior approval before using the tech to snoop around.

It is difficult to discover what the devices are capable of beyond monitoring cellphone traffic, however, as its producer – the Harris Corporation – requires police to sign a non-disclosure agreement before purchasing them.

“The use of a cell-site simulator intrudes upon an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, acting as an instrument of eavesdropping, and requires a separate warrant supported by probable cause,” Murphy concluded.

TFPP has previously covered the controversy about these tools, also known as stingray devices, on a number of occasions. Here is some basic background on the matter:

The number of state and local police departments using the unconstitutional “Stingray Tracking devices” is up to 23 states and 60 local agencies […]

It’s very simple to use. One simply parks their car (or police cruiser) on the street corner and activates the unit. It sends out a signal that’s stronger than surrounding cell towers, so phones are fooled into linking with the device. Police then have their pick of which phone to download data from – or all of them.

With the endorsement and financial support of Homeland Security, local and state law enforcement got their hands on these devices. But with one caveat: Don’t tell anyone.

That police use – let alone even have – the devices is supposed to be a complete secret. In one court case in 2014, Tallahassee police tracked and arrested a criminal suspect using a Stingray. When the court wanted to know how police found the individual, police refused to answer. The judge ordered a response but only got one after clearing the courtroom and sealing the record.

In September, we reported that the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a 2-to-1 ruling that police needed a court order to use stingray devices to snoop on suspects.

What do you think about all of this? Are cell-site simulators just as privacy-invasive as wiretapping? Share your thoughts in the comments below.