The FBI made the statement in response to a request by Senators Patrick Leahy and Charles Grassley last week, asking for the Obama administration to clarify its stance on the stingray program.
Stingrays are cell-site simulators deployed by law enforcement agencies which pose as cell towers in order to intercept mobile signals. They are capable of capturing mobile user locations and IDs, as well as calls and text messages.
The FBI’s stance follows a predictable trend set by the Obama administration in regards to Americans’ expectation of privacy. In 2010, the bureau stood behind the president as he urged a federal appeals court to allow the government to plant GPS devices on vehicles without a warrant.
In that case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Smith wrote, “The panel’s conclusion that [defendant Antoine] Jones had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the public movements of his Jeep rested on the premise that an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the totality of his or her movements in public places.”
The administration also argued that using a pan-and-zoom webcam to spy on a suspect in a place of residence should be considered no less invasive than a police officer observing from a street corner.
Federal judges sided against the administration in both of these cases.
Last week, Leahy and Grassley wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson, expressing their concerns with the use of stingrays.
“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,” they wrote.
While Senators Leahy and Grassley may be bringing the stingray issue to light in Congress, the technology has also come under fire from civil liberties groups. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has criticized the technology for providing law enforcement with “all-you-can eat data buffets.”
The stingray debate also mirrors the legal reasoning behind the Justice Department’s justification for the collection of e-mail metadata after September 11, 2001.