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Secret Service and ICE conducted illegal surveillance through fake cell towers

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A newly-released report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) revealed that federal agencies, including Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), used cell-site simulators (CSS) to illegally conduct surveillance.

CSS, aka Stingrays, are devices that mimic cell phone towers, duping mobile devices within a certain radius to connect to them instead of cell towers. Once connected to the CSS, law enforcement can conduct a search of the devices, in violation of basic constitutional freedoms.

CSS can pinpoint the location of a phone more accurately than using phone numbers. They also log the unique identifying numbers called IMSI of all devices in a certain radius.

The OIG report found that federal agencies were using CSS without following the privacy policy guiding the use of this technology, including failing to acquire special orders required before the technology is used.

Even in the event of exigent circumstances, law enforcement agencies are required to obtain a pen register order to use CSS.

The report redacts data on the number of times each agency used CSS with and without violating the law.

The report is alarming but not surprising given federal agencies’ history of overbroad collection of data. Last year, it was reported that ICE and HSI were using overly-broad warrants to collect the financial records of people using money transfer services like Western Union for cross-border transactions.

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