The federal government may be shifting its stance on one of the most controversial surveillance technologies it employs.
The Justice Department is conducting an internal review on its use of “secret mobile phone tracking devices,” according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.
For years both federal and state governments have been using a technology, known to many as Stingray, which is able to tap mobile devices as well as track cellular metadata including call times and location.
But formal information about how organisations are collecting and using this data has been scant. This is because local authorities have been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements with the federal government.
Now it appears the federal government is trying to rethink the secrecy surrounding these devices. Beyond reviewing how much detail it can provide about the technology and how it’s used, the FBI has reportedly been getting search warrants whenever they intend to use Stingray-like programs, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Currently, it’s impossible to tell whether or not these devices are being used. Requiring a warrant would be one way to ensure that authorities disclose when these types of surveillance devices are in use.
This secrecy has led to numerous court cases from civil liberties groups like the ACLU. Recently the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) was able to unearth a slew of new records documenting cases when the New York State Sheriff’s Office used the technology.
Privacy groups are heartened by this news.
“It’s a long overdue but positive development,” NYCLU staff attorney Mariko Hirose told Business Insider. “One that I hope will have an impact on local law enforcement.”
Hirose is alluding the marked difference in how federal and state agencies have been using Stingray. That is, while the FBI has been working to receive warrants in order to use the tracking devices, some police forces — including Baltimore, Sarasota, and Tacoma — have been using Stingrays frequently to compile evidence and not divulging information about these new practices.
While this development is a step in the right direction for privacy advocates like Hirose, the news is merely that a review is underway. For now, groups like the ACLU are holding their breath for real reform to come.
“There’s still a lot to see about what this outcome will be and when we will found out more,” said Hirose.