The chairman and ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee want answers from the Obama administration on cell-site “simulators,” which are reportedly used by law enforcement to track suspects but also have the potential to capture information on cellphones in their vicinity.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, Sens. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, asked about federal policy and the usage of the simulators.
“The Judiciary Committee needs a broader understanding of the full range of law enforcement agencies that use this technology, the policies in place to protect the privacy interests of those whose information might be collected using these devices, and the legal process that DOJ and DHS entities seek prior to using them,” the senators wrote in the letter dated Dec. 23 and released Wednesday.
The senators cite a November article from the Wall Street Journal that reported the Justice Department is targeting criminal suspects using the devices, which mimic cellphone towers and can also snag information and general phone locations of innocent Americans.
While not confirming or denying the existence of such a program, a Justice Department official told the paper that agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval, and that discussion of such matters would allow suspects or foreign powers to determine U.S. surveillance capabilities.
The senators also wrote that after briefings by FBI officials with staffers, the FBI changed its policy so that it now obtains a search warrant before deploying a simulator, with “a number of potentially broad exemptions.”
Those exemptions include cases that pose an imminent public safety danger, cases that involve a fugitive, and cases where technology is being used in public places or areas the agency determines there’s no “reasonable” expectation of privacy.
Among other things, the senators asked for details about the FBI’s use of the simulators since Jan. 1, 2010, through the effective date of the new policy, and then afterward, as well as the agency’s policy on retaining and destroying information collected by the simulators.
Beyond this specific issue, the debate over privacy and data collection has been front in center in Congress this year.
Earlier in December, the Obama administration said it renewed for 90 days the National Security Agency’s program that collects and temporarily stores information on the dates and durations of phone calls to see if there are any ties associated with terrorism.
Senate Republicans filibustered a bill to halt the program after a different version easily won passage in the House earlier in the year. President Obama says he has taken steps to limit the snooping, such as asking investigators to get a court’s sign-off, but opponents say the administration is relying on a faulty reading of the post-9/11 Patriot Act to justify the program.