New Illinois law regulates police use of cell-site simulators

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Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has signed into law a measure that regulates and restricts the use of cell-site simulators by law enforcement agencies in the state.

Cell-site simulators, also known as “stingrays,” are surveillance devices that mimic cell-phone towers, tricking phones in a particular area into transmitting their locations and unique identifiers. Police can then intercept data from cell phones without users being aware it is happening.

Simulators can also block calls, lock the phone, drain battery life and employ malware that gives the operator of the malware total control of the phone, including the ability to read email, scroll through contacts, intercept metadata and access content of cell phone transmissions.

The new law, the Citizen Privacy Protection Act, was signed by Rauner Friday without comment and will take effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

The law provides that a law enforcement agency may not use a cell-site simulator device except to locate or track the whereabouts of a communications device or to identify a communications device.

Furthermore, police must obtain a court order based on probable cause that a person whose location information is sought has committed or is about to commit a crime before they can deploy a cell-site simulator device.

The application for a court order must include a description of how the simulator will be used and the manner of its deployment. It also must describe the procedures that will be followed to protect the privacy of nontarget cell phones during the police operation since simulators have the potential to sweep private data from all phones within their signal range.

Also under the new law, any data collected beyond the scope of the warrant must be immediately and permanently deleted.

Civil liberties advocates in Illinois applauded the imposition of limitations on cell-site simulators by police.

“Given the prevalence of [cell phones] and our reliance on the technology daily in today’s society, cell-site simulator technology is too powerful to remain unregulated,” said Khadine Bennett, associate legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

She added that the federal government has in place simulator guidelines similar to those signed into law in Illinois. “If the restrictions are good enough for the FBI, they should be workable for local law enforcement in Illinois,” she said.

Under federal Justice Department guidelines on the use of simulators, law enforcement agents must obtain a warrant, disclose the underlying purpose for which authorization is sought and consult with prosecutors in advance of deploying a simulator.

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