Secret Service: A government watchdog has revealed there was a pattern of failure by it was the Secret Service and ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit frequently failed to get the proper legal documents for conducting invasive surveillance of cell phones.
The report was released this week by the inspector general of Homeland Security who is responsible for oversight of the U.S. federal department and its law enforcement units and found that agencies used cell-site simulators frequently without having the right warrants of search.
Secret Service and ICE conducted warrantless stingray surveillance
Cell-site simulators, also called “stingrays” are surveillance equipment employed by law enforcement agencies that impersonate cell towers in order to fool nearby mobile phones into connecting with them which allows police to monitor their live location. Certain stingrays that are newer can be believed capable of recording SMS and phone calls messages from nearby mobiles.
However, stingrays have been criticized because they also capture every other device in their vicinity that includes devices belonging to individuals with no connection to criminals. Stingrays also are developed in strict non-disclosure agreements which limit what can be publically available about stingrays or even what police are able to divulge about the stingrays. Prosecutors have withdrawn cases in court rather than risk disclosing technical details of how cell-site simulators operate.
Due to the fact that they are invasive, cell-site simulators can be an issue, the inspector general recommended that federal agencies need to get a warrant for a search, approved by a judge before a simulator for cell phones can be employed. The inspector general stated that only emergency or urgent circumstances permit the use of cell-site simulators without a warrant which can include having to act fast to stop the destruction of evidence or risk of immediate danger or threat to life or the security of the nation or cyberattack. In these cases, authorities must apply for an order from the court in the first 48 hours after the deployment of the simulator on a cell phone or face the possibility of being caught in violation of the law for conducting illegal surveillance.
In the report that was redacted the inspector general noted it was true that Secret Service and ICE HSI “did not always receive court orders” in accordance with their policies within their own agencies as well as federal laws.
The report of the watchdog outlined two types of issues. The second concern is that there was a problem with the Secret Service and ICE HSI “did not properly interpret” the internal guidelines governing how cell sites are used during emergencies. In one instance ICE HSI said it did not think it needed warrants because the person was “provided the necessary consent.”
Another issue was the way the Secret Service and ICE HSI employed cell-site simulators in support of requests from law enforcement authorities in the local area. In one case, as highlighted by an inspector general an appellate judge “did not comprehend” the reason prosecutors requested an emergency surveillance order as they did not understand the statute the judge “believed that it was not necessary,” leading to a number of warrantless deployments. In another instance, the inspector general rebuked ICE HSI as it was “unable to present evidence” that it had ever sought the emergency order of a court in an instance deemed to be an urgent circumstance.
It is true that both the Secret Service and ICE HSI have embraced the watchdog’s recommendations that included strengthening the internal policies and procedures.
The report that was redacted did not provide the number of times simulators for cell phones were used in the past. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE enforces immigration law and carries the deportation process, has been said to have utilized numerous stingrays in the period between 2017 and the year 2019.
In a blog post, the digital rights group The Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized the report’s redactions. “The OIG should release this information to the public at large: having the aggregate figures could not hurt any current investigation, but instead provide a basis for public debate about the agency’s reliance on this intrusive technology,” wrote EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia.