Law enforcement can track cell phones in real time without warrant

By Steve Wilson
February 18, 2019

For a third straight session, the Mississippi legislature won’t be addressing a technological gap in the privacy rights of its citizens.

The House Judiciary B Committee — chaired by state Rep. Angela Cockerham (D-Magnolia) — let a bill die on deadline on February 5 that would’ve required a warrant for cell site simulator devices that can represent an invasion of privacy by law enforcement.

House Bill 85 was authored by Rep. Steve Hopkins (R-Southaven) and would’ve provided an exception for the warrant requirement if it was necessary for law enforcement officials to use the cell site simulator device to prevent loss of life or injury.

These devices, also known as IMSI (international mobile subscriber identity) catchers, are used by law enforcement to spoof cell phone towers and trick any cell phone within range of connecting with them.

They were originally developed for use by the military and intelligence agencies such as the NSA, but have now migrated to federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now to local law enforcement agencies.

“It goes against all the principles of a free society and the intent of the Founders when the Constitution was written,” Hopkins said. “We have a right to privacy and that’s why there should be laws protecting us from any warrantless wiretap.”

The way these devices work is simple.

Each cell phone has a 15-digit identifier known as an IMSI that they use to communicate with the cellular network. Phones are designed to connect to the strongest tower within range. The IMSI catcher, which is usually mounted in a surveillance vehicle, is designed to crowd out the other towers within range and force the mobile devices within its range (usually about a mile) to connect to it.

Law enforcement can sort through the troves of phones that connect to the cell site simulator and find a particular IMSI that they obtained from a service provider, either voluntarily or by a court order. When law enforcement finds the particular IMSI they are searching for, they can use the device to triangulate its location.

According to a report by the libertarian Cato Institute, these devices can detect where a live mobile phone is within six feet in some cases.

In addition to being able to locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone, these devices are also capable of obtaining their communications content including text messages and calls.

“It was brought to my attention by a resident and I had no idea that law enforcement had the ability to eavesdrop, more or less, without a warrant,” Hopkins said. “Human beings will give into temptation and who’s to say that someone has access to this that they’re not listening in to someone that they may have a vendetta against and use it incorrectly.”

Law enforcement isn’t the only user of the IMSI catchers, as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security admitted last April that it’s aware of unauthorized cell site simulators being used in various parts of Washington, D.C.

These are likely being used by foreign intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on government cellular traffic.

A similar bill last year also authored by Hopkins died in committee.


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