Democratic and Republican lawmakers are demanding answers from the Obama Administration regarding the proliferation of cell phone tower “simulators,” which reports say are used by federal and state law enforcement to track suspects but also have the capability of capturing the information stored on all cell phones in their vicinity.
In particular, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, respectively — have petitioned Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson asking him to lay out federal policy regarding the usage of the phony cell towers.
“The Judiciary Committee needs a broader understanding of the full range of law enforcement agencies that use this technology, the policies in place to protect the privacy interests of those whose information might be collected using these devices, and the legal process that DOJ and DHS entities seek prior to using them,” the senators wrote in the letter dated Dec. 23, and released just days ago, as reported by The Washington Times (WT).
Fourth Amendment be damned
The paper further reported:
The senators cite a November article from the Wall Street Journal that reported the Justice Department is targeting criminal suspects using the devices, which mimic cellphone towers and can also snag information and general phone locations of innocent Americans.
The WSJ said in its report that the Justice Department in particular was “scooping up data” from thousands of cell phones via devices installed on airplanes, which mimic cell phone towers. The high-tech spy program is supposedly aimed at criminal suspects, but in the process “is snagging a large number of innocent Americans, according to people familiar with the operations,” the paper reported online.
The WSJ said the program was begun by the U.S. Marshals Service and ramped up around 2007, during the waning years of the Bush Administration. It reportedly operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metro-area airports, and has a flying range that covers the majority of the U.S. population.
In response to the Judiciary Committee’s letter, the Justice Department neither confirmed nor denied the existence of the program. One official with the department said that U.S. agencies were complying with federal law, including seeking court orders but that further open discussion of any such program would likely lead to a compromise of American capabilities for suspects and foreign powers alike.
The WT noted that the senators also wrote that, after the committee’s staffers were briefed by FBI officials, the bureau changed its policy so that it now gets a search warrant before deploying a cell tower simulator, with “a number of potentially broad exemptions.”
The WT further reported:
Those exemptions include cases that pose an imminent public safety danger, cases that involve a fugitive, and cases where technology is being used in public places or areas the agency determines there’s no “reasonable” expectation of privacy.
The Constitution is supposed to be the final authority on “reasonable” expectation of privacy, and indeed the Fourth Amendment states that citizens are protected in their “persons, papers and effects” from undue government spying. Nevertheless, such programs continue, even though the debate over Americans’ privacy in the Digital Age has become somewhat of a major issue in Congress, especially data collection.
Opponent turned supporter
In early December, the Obama Administration announced that it had renewed for three months a National Security Agency program permitting it to gather and temporarily store information on dates and durations of phone calls, to determine if there are any terrorism ties.
This is from someone who, as a junior U.S. senator from Illinois, campaigned in 2008 as a presidential candidate who opposed such Bush-era spying programs.
As reported by The New York Times in January 2014:
As a young lawmaker defining himself as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama visited a center for scholars in August 2007 to give a speech on terrorism. He described a surveillance state run amok and vowed to rein it in. “That means no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens,” he declared. “No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.”
More than six years later, the onetime constitutional lawyer is now the commander in chief presiding over a surveillance state that some of his own advisers think has once again gotten out of control.
Shortly after this article was published, Obama went to the Justice Department to give a speech defending the same spying that he once said he opposed.