Politics & Government

Bill would underscore warrant requirement for Stingray use

Fifteen state representatives have signed onto a bill that would require police to get a warrant before using surveillance technology that mimics cellphone towers to identify nearby phones.

David Taylor, R-Moxee, introduced House Bill 1440 this week to promote electronic privacy, he said.

His legislation doesn’t appear to propose changes for the Tacoma Police Department, the only Washington police agency known to possess the device commonly called a Stingray. The device finds suspects by the cellphones they carry. Once connected, the police can capture precise locations of a suspect’s phone and metadata — who he or she calls or texts, when and for how long.

Tacoma police say they already get something called a pen register order, which has traditionally allowed police to ask a cellphone company to provide information about a suspect’s cellphone use and the location of the suspect. After a News Tribune report last year revealed that police were using those orders as permission to also deploy their cell site simulator, Pierce County Superior Court judges began requiring officers to tell them when they intend to use the device.

Doug Klunder, a privacy attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle, said Taylor’s bill doesn’t appear to change much in state law. The bill would recognize cell site simulators as another type of police phone surveillance and require police to show probable cause as Tacoma police already do in applying for pen register orders and other warrants.

“Our state constitutional privacy provision is very strong and I don’t believe anybody believes (a cell site simulator) could be deployed here without a warrant,” Klunder said.

Klunder said he would like to see lawmakers address the capability of the devices to capture the data of bystanders who are not the target of police surveillance.

“To use (a cell site simulator), it’s necessarily going to be collecting third-party information,” he said. “Potentially there could be a strong limitation that it immediately gets rid of the (third party information) so that nobody ever sees that information about the third party. We do not have legislation drafted to do that.”

Tacoma police have said they do not collect data unrelated to the surveillance target, but that any further explanation of how they operate the device without also scooping up data on bystanders would be a violation of a nondisclosure agreement the agency has with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Taylor last year said he was concerned that police collected data on innocent people nearby. He also has proposed a state constitutional amendment to ensure electronic data is secure from unreasonable searches and seizures.

He thinks the Stingray bill has a chance for a hearing in the public safety committee because that committee’s chairman, Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, has cosponsored the bill. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, has also cosponsored the bill and is chairwoman of the judiciary committee.

Of the 15 sponsors, six are Democrats and nine are Republicans, and the group contains a mix of urban and rural state representatives.

“I think that’s a great sign of moving this forward,” he said. “It clearly demonstrates this isn’t an urban issue. … This is an issue that crosses the partisan politics that looks at preserving freedom and liberty for all of Washington.”