By mimicking cell phone towers, Stingrays can suck all kinds of data out of any nearby cell phones—location, metadata, even content of communications.
By mimicking cell phone towers, Stingrays can suck all kinds of data out of any nearby cell phones—location, metadata, even the content of communications. iceink/Shutterstock

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Well, a little good news from the state legislature: Yesterday, House Bill 1440—"prohibiting the use of a cell site simulator device without a warrant"—finished its laps around the house and the senate with unanimous support.

The bill restricts the use of Stingrays and other devices that mimic cell towers and indiscriminately suck up data, including location and sometimes communications content, from whatever phones happen to be nearby—at a sporting event, protest, downtown sidewalk, college campus, no-tell motel, wherever.

Last week, I wrote about Stingrays and how local police departments around the country have been making secret nondisclosure agreements with the FBI and surveillance tech companies to obscure their use. The agreements require deceiving judges, if necessary, and letting the FBI intervene in county prosecutions to have them dismissed if the proceedings might reveal information about Stingrays.

We've seen a little of that in our backyard—last year, the Tacoma News Tribune reported that judges in Pierce County were authorizing police use of Stingrays without even realizing it.

Jared Friend, technology and liberty director at the ACLU of Washington, explained this afternoon that Tacoma police led judges to believe they were authorizing "pen register, trap and trace" surveillance—old-fashioned, highly targeted monitoring of landlines.

The new bill, Friend says, has four important components.

It requires police to (1) request specific warrants to use Stingray-type devices, (2) provide judges with information about how Stingrays affect bystanders (and their Fourth Amendment rights) as well as their potential to disrupt communications networks, (3) immediately delete all information that has been gathered from anyone who's not the target of the investigation, and (4) delete all information about the target if the police's probable cause falls apart. (For example: You are suspected of drug dealing and police use a Stingray to try and find you. If they realize you're not the one they're after, they have to delete the information they've collected.)

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Washington isn't the first state to pass a law regulating Stingrays, but it is the first to have such detailed provisions about deleting information and disclosing potential side-effects to judges.

Friend says it's "amazing" that the bill passed unanimously, and he gives partial credit to "good reporting" around the country on the subject.

"There have been great stories about how the FBI and DOJ have gone to great lengths to cover up the capability of these devices and how they're used," he said. "It's one thing to use surveillance, and another thing to use it in such a obfuscatory way."