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Police need warrant to track cellphones, appeals court says

A judge must sign off when police use "Stingrays" to record all the cellphone numbers nearby. The devices trick cell phones by acting like cell towers.

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An appeals court ruled Wednesday that police must get a warrant to use cell-site simulators, also called Stingrays, to locate suspects through their cellphones.

Can the police locate suspects by scanning through all the phone numbers that pass through a certain area? Sure, but they'll need a warrant first.

That's according to a federal appeals court, which ruled Thursday that police must get permission from a judge to use "Stingray" devices, also called cell-site simulators, as part of their investigations. The simulators act like a cell tower, picking up the telltale identifiers that cellphones automatically broadcast when they pass near towers. Police can use that information to track the movements of criminal suspects. (One popular model is the StingRay, manufactured by Harris Corp., hence the nick name.)

But the devices have been controversial, and privacy advocates have fought to require a warrant before police can use them. Two appellate judges from the DC Circuit US Court of Appeals agreed, saying Thursday that the use of cell-site simulators is a police search and subject to the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. The third judge on the panel dissented.

"[T]he use of a cell-site simulator to locate a person through his or her cellphone invades the person's actual, legitimate, and reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her location information and is a search," Associate Judge Corrine A. Beckwith wrote in the majority opinion.

Critics also say the devices give police overreaching access to personal information -- in part because the simulators can collect the information of everyone in the area, not just the phone number of a criminal suspect who might be in the neighborhood. Wednesday's ruling doesn't address this issue.

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