CT lawmakers aim to regulate cellphone tracking devices

HARTFORD – A new device that can be a powerful tool for catching criminals is also raising serious concerns about privacy.

Although no police departments in Connecticut have reported owning these devices, state lawmakers are taking preventative measures to protect citizens’ rights.

Around the country, local and federal agencies are using Stingray devices or cell site simulators to track suspects via their cellphone data. But due to the way these devices work, they’re also gathering information of other people who happen to be nearby.

"You essentially have a tracker that police can use this device to figure out where you go with extreme precision,” explained David McGuire, Executive Director of the ACLU of Connecticut.

These devices mimic cell phone towers, sending out signals and tricking cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and information.

McGuire said, "If they put the Stingray on and calibrate it to essentially pretend it’s a cellphone tower for a particular cellphone provider, all the cellphones in that area will lock onto it and they'll be able to track people and intercept their messages. So it is a very broad and powerful technology, which is why we need to regulate it.”

State lawmakers in Connecticut are aiming to do that this session. A House bill passed unanimously last week that would require agencies to get a court order to install and use a cell site simulator. It’s a similar process used to obtain a search warrant.

"I think we need a set of rules to accommodate this technology and I think we came up with a fair situation where we treat cellphones and their privacy much like we would treat someone's home phone,” said Rep. Rob Sampson of Wolcott, one of the sponsors of the bill.

The legislation heads to the Senate next with bipartisan support.

It is a preventative measure because no agencies in Connecticut have reported owning a Stingray type device.

According to the ACLU, 72 agencies in 24 states and the District of Columbia, own stingrays.

But because the manufacturer of these devices often requires departments to enter into an agreement where they will not disclose this technology, they believe these numbers don't represent the actual use of Stingrays by law enforcement agencies nationwide.