Public Safety & Justice

Indiana Legislators Propose Warrants for Cell Phone Snooping

December 10, 2013
 

At least three state senators plan to introduce legislation that would ban police from gathering cell phone data without first acquiring a warrant.

Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Monday he would co-sponsor such legislation in the wake of an Indianapolis Star investigation that revealed the Indiana State Police had acquired a "Stingray" device for $373,995.

While State Police would not say how the intended to use the device, law enforcement officials elsewhere have said such equipment is a useful tool in fighting crime and terrorism.

But the suitcase-size device alarms civil liberties and open government groups because it can track the movements of anyone nearby with a cellphone. The equipment also captures the numbers of people's incoming and outgoing calls and text messages.

The fact that police won't discuss what they do with the data they collect, or whether they have privacy safeguards, also concerned some lawmakers.

"I'm not saying we should ban them totally," Steele said Monday. "But I think there's reasonable protections that our Constitution mandates and our society expects."

Other senators who expressed concerns Monday include Brent Waltz, Jim Smith and Mike Delph, all Republicans.

"The Indiana State Police, as other police agencies across the country, uses a variety of investigative tools to apprehend people who engage in criminal acts," said a spokesman, Capt. David Bursten. "To publicly reveal our methods only makes criminals smarter about law enforcement techniques."

Citing concerns that providing any information about the technology would jeopardize the agency's ability to fight terrorism and investigate crimes, police officials declined to comment for Sunday's story in The Star. The agency wouldn't answer questions about how the device is used, what's done with the data collected, or whether it obtains a search warrant before turning the device on. Other than a one-page purchase order, police also refused to provide The Star its contract with the company.

A USA TODAY investigation, published jointly with The Star on Sunday, revealed that at least 25 local police agencies in the U.S. have contracts with Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp. for Stingrays.

Police officials at other agencies across the U.S. told USA TODAY that they have to be so secretive to foil terror plots and catch criminals. Some said the devices are used in extraordinary circumstances and only to hunt for a single phone at a time, not to collect data from thousands of callers.

But the technology is often used with a simple court order and not a warrant that would require detectives and prosecutors to demonstrate probable cause, a legal term meaning there is belief a crime occurred.

Court orders generally require detectives to show only that the data collected would aid in an investigation, a standard that's much easier to meet.

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