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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Justice Department Announces Enhanced Policy for Use of Cell-Site Simulators

Increased Privacy Protections and Higher Legal Standards to Be Required

The Justice Department today announced a new policy for its use of cell-site simulators that will enhance transparency and accountability, improve training and supervision, establish a higher and more consistent legal standard and increase privacy protections in relation to law enforcement’s use of this critical technology.

The policy, which goes into effect immediately and applies department-wide, will provide department components with standard guidance for the use of cell-site simulators in the department’s domestic criminal investigations and will establish new management controls for the use of the technology.

“With the issuance of this policy, the Department of Justice reaffirms its commitment to hold itself to the highest standards as it performs its critical work to protect public safety,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.  “Cell-site simulator technology has been instrumental in aiding law enforcement in a broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations and complicated narcotics cases.  This new policy ensures our protocols for this technology are consistent, well-managed and respectful of individuals’ privacy and civil liberties.”

Cell-site simulators are just one tool among many traditional law enforcement techniques and are deployed only in the fraction of cases in which the capability is best suited to achieve specific public safety objectives. 

To enhance privacy protections, the new policy establishes a set of required practices with respect to the treatment of information collected through the use of cell-site simulators.  This includes data handling requirements and an agency-level implementation of an auditing program to ensure that data is deleted consistent with this policy.  For example, when the equipment is used to locate a known cellular device, all data must be deleted as soon as that device is located, and no less than once daily.

Additionally, the policy makes clear that cell-site simulators may not be used to collect the contents of any communication in the course of criminal investigations.  This means data contained on the phone itself, such as emails, texts, contact lists and images, may not be collected using this technology.

While the department has, in the past, obtained appropriate legal authorizations to use cell-site simulators, law enforcement agents must now obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause before using a cell-site simulator.  There are limited exceptions in the policy for exigent circumstances or exceptional circumstances where the law does not require a search warrant and circumstances make obtaining a search warrant impracticable.  Department components will be required to track and report the number of times the technology is deployed under these exceptions.

To ensure that the use of the technology is well managed and consistent across the department, the policy requires appropriate supervision and approval.

Updated September 3, 2015