We have examined the subject of “cell-site simulators” before, which you may have heard of as “Stingray” devices. Local, state and Federal law enforcement agencies have been reticent about how they use these devices and how they work, but it is generally known that they mimic cell phone towers to trick cell and smart phones into transmitting identifying information that the simulator captures. Cell-site simulators can help police to locate a device with a phone number they already know about, or they can serve as collectors of such identifying information for any wireless phone within their operating radius.

But just how precise are these devices, and how much of your personal information can they collect? It turns out that, depending on variables such as the capabilities of the equipment and the proficiency of the operator, they can pinpoint your location with a high degree of accuracy. And although they are not supposed to be used like digital vacuum cleaners to scoop up everything on your cell phone, the potential exists for them to be abused in this way.

We can learn more about the details of what cell-site simulators can do through an affidavit that a Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation recently provided in connection with a criminal case in California. Taken together with other public sources, here are some things you may not have known:

  • Cell-site simulators, while not dedicated location-tracking devices like a GPS, identify the relative signal strength and general direction of a target phone from the simulator. Older devices like the “Stingray” could locate a phone in a general area, but in the hands of a well-trained operator a late-model cell-site simulator like a “Hailstorm” or “DRTBox” can pinpoint cell phone location to a particular building.
  • The FBI has at least one additional tool available — what it calls an “augmentation device” – that, when used in tandem with a cell-site simulator, can pinpoint a phone’s location further still. In the California case, the Oakland Police Department was using its own cell-site simulator to search for a suspect in the shooting of a police officer, but with little success; when it called in the FBI for help, not only was that agency quickly able to track down the suspect’s cell phone to a specific apartment building, the augmentation device enabled the Special Agent using it to narrow down the location even further, perhaps to the specific room in the building where the phone was.
  • Whether the use of cell-site simulators requires a warrant beforehand depends on who is using it. Under guidelines from the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal agencies need a warrant; but in Oklahoma the warrant question is still murky because of the lack of any state law governing the use of these devices (the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs has one, but claims not to have used it yet, while the Oklahoma City Police Department apparently has one that it has “borrowed” from the FBI — and has not said whether, or how it has been used). The U.S. House of Representatives is presently considering proposed legislation (the Stingray Privacy Act) that would extend the Federal warrant requirement to all law enforcement agencies.
  • Although at least the FBI claims that it does not use cell-site simulators to gather personal data from cell phones, such as account information like your address or personal information like your address book, emails, photos and text messages, they do have the capability to collect such data; and in at least one instance involving the Baltimore Police Department, cell-site simulators were allegedly used inappropriately.

The police use of cell-site simulators is an evolving area of criminal law that — as these instruments become more advanced and capable not only of pinpoint accuracy but also of scooping up information that individuals consider to be personal, and private — is causing more concern about how they are used. Questions about the extent and legality of such use in Oklahoma will require increasing attention by both civil liberties activists and defense attorneys alike until both Federal and state laws fully catch up with the development of their technology.