A recent letter from Senator Patrick Leahy to Attorney General Eric Holder raised concerns over the FBI’s use of IMSI Catchers or “dirtboxes” to intercept the cell phone conversations of American citizens. The FBI defends its use of IMSI or International Mobile Subscriber Identity Catchers claiming that it is their policy to obtain a warrant prior to deploying the device. An IMSI Catcher acts as a false cell tower and intercepts transmissions between the cell phone and the destination cell tower. The FBI policy is, however, articulated in such a way which does allow for the warrantless wiretapping of citizens using their mobile device in public places. The policy states that they may deploy such technology without a warrant in “cases in which the technology is used in public places or other locations at which the FBI deems there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Sen. Leahy, raise the issue that the use of IMSI Catchers violates constitutionally protected communications by usurping the process of obtaining a warrant and has greater implications for the privacy of American citizens whose communication data is collected. The focus of the letter was the warrant exceptions which the FBI had recently changed its policy on. The change in FBI policy allowed for greater unrestricted use of the IMSI Catcher. Changes in the FBI policy were partially based upon the U.S. Marshall’s policies governing the usage of the device. The Marshall service is known to have attached an IMSI catcher to a small single engine aircraft for the purpose of gathering mass amounts of cell phone traffic over major metropolitan areas. The Judiciary Committee requested a response from the Attorney General and the Department of Homeland Security into the current and past usage of these devices, if warrants were obtained prior to their deployment and which agencies currently use them.
IMSI catchers are the latest piece of tech that federal agencies and local law enforcement are attempting to shuffle past the sleeping eyes of the judicial system, in order to chip away at our privacy. Police agencies are able to obtain the device through a federal grant under an “anti-terrorist” program called the Urban Areas Security Initiative. The Baltimore Police and the FBI found themselves in hot water recently after deploying a dirtbox during a murder-for-hire sting. The ACLU intervened on behalf of the defendant, claiming that use of the device was not listed in the warrant obtained and that intercepting the calls of “innocent third parties” was a protrusion into “constitutionally protected spaces.” As awareness of IMSI catchers grows and more law suits arise, the Justice Department will be forced to address the public privacy concerns that the technology brings with it.