FBI director James Comey.
FBI director James Comey. Brendan Kiley

Last month in Olympia, both the senate and the house unanimously passed a bill restricting the use of Stingrays and other surveillance devices that mimic cell towers, indiscriminately sucking up data from our phones.

That data includes location and sometimes communications content, and law-enforcement officials in Washington and other states have recently tricked judges into authorizing their use without knowing what, exactly, they were authorizing.

Today, Governor Inslee signed the Stingray-restricting bill into law, making Washington one of the strictest states in the country when it comes to getting permission to use the devices.

This does not, of course, control federal agencies' use of the Stingrays. As the local FBI office has stressed on several occasions—including last fall's whistle-stop by FBI director James Comey—there is an unusual degree of cooperation between local and federal law-enforcement agencies in our region. (When a reporter asked Comey how many Stingrays the FBI has in general or in this area, he cheerily said: "You can't make me tell you that!")

Information that a federal agency—the DEA or FBI—collects with a Stingray during the course of an investigation can still be shared with local law enforcement. (That, says Jared Friend of the American Civil Liberties Union, is known as the "silver platter doctrine.") And if the SPD and FBI, for example, are engaged in a joint investigation, the FBI can still use Stingrays in ways that the SPD now cannot.

You can see the intensity of local and federal cooperation in all kinds of cases, from May Day investigations to the years-long attempt by the SPD and FBI to root out (or even create) domestic terrorists vis a vis a small-stakes poker scene among artists and recreational drug users. Not to mention the ongoing Towery case, in which the army seems to have planted a spy among antiwar activists in Tacoma.

"It's possible the law could be circumvented by federal agencies," Friend says. "There's no [federal] law on the books restricting the use of this technology. It's still largely being used in the dark."

But, he says, "we're in a bit of a changing landscape right now." There have been so many stories about the use of Stingray-type devices that "the tolerance for this campaign of obfuscation is waning."

The bill itself, which you can read here, requires police to: (1) write clear and specific warrants, (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.)

Friend, of the ACLU, says there is momentum in other states for similar laws—Virginia has passed one this session, and legislators in New York and Texas have also shown interest.

"This fight isn’t over as far as I’m concerned," he wrote in an e-mail. "More to come."