Wisconsin Supreme Court Issues Ruling on Cell Phone Tracking

Cell Phone Tracking: In a recent decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that a court’s order allowing the police department to use a “pen register” operated the same as a warrant and allowed the use of a Stingray cell phone tracking device to locate a suspect in a homicide investigation. The standard for getting permission to use a pen register is much lower than the standard for getting the court to issue a warrant.

Here’s the problem – a pen register is something very different from a Stingray. A pen register records the numbers dialed from a specific phone line, whether it’s a land line or cell. As far as we know, a Stingray communicates directly with the cell phone and dupes the phone into thinking it’s communicating with a tower. This could mean that not only does the Stingray device find out the phone’s location, it intercepts calls, text messages, and data coming and going to the phone.

Again, we don’t fully know how the Stingray devices work because the police have asserted they can’t reveal their workings to the courts due to a confidentiality clause in their contracts with the company. Essentially this means a private company is secretly determining how police searches of private citizens are conducted, without judicial oversight.

Based on a map put together by the ACLU, Florida is one of five states where both state-wide and local police use Stingray devices. The ACLU recently succeeded in getting a Tallahassee judge to unseal a transcript showing  in part how Stingray devices work: by imitating a cell phone tower and forcing the phones in the area to register their location and data with it. This indicates that the device not only intercepts data from the suspect’s phone, but from other phones in the immediate area as well.

Police departments should be required to get a warrant from a judge before using a Stingray device. The courts and the public should both know how much these devices intrude into our expectations of privacy. Until this happens the police continue to intrude and invade our privacy.