The development of a new cellphone tracking device called a “stingray” may threaten Fourth Amendment protections and the ability to provide proper criminal defense. Stingrays are designed to locate a cellphone even when the cellphone is not being used to place a phone call. Often, the cellphone tracking devices have been used by law enforcement to successfully track people without a search warrant.
Stingrays trace cellphones by acting like a cellphone tower: the stingray gets a phone to connect to it and then measures signals from the phone. Stingrays ping or send a signal to the phone and it is able to track the phone as long as the phone is on. The device can be used by search and rescue teams or by law enforcement to locate suspects.
Additional details about the devices outside of certain law enforcement circles are not known and the Federal Bureau of Investigation believes the device is so crucial that it deletes information gathered by the device so that other parties cannot learn about how the device functions. The use of the device along with other new technological techniques that track people are creating concern about whether the devices violate the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment generally prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.
The Supreme Court will likely get a chance to decide the issue on November 8. On that date the Court will hear arguments about whether or not police need a warrant before clandestinely installing a GPS device on a suspect’s car and tracking the suspect for a period of time. Two new bills in the House and Senate require warrants before such devices can be used.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, “‘Stingray’ phone tracker fuels constitutional clash,” Jennifer Valentino-Devries, Sept. 22, 2011