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New tool for criminal investigations: stingrays

The IRS continues to struggle with budget cuts, but it is far from toothless. In fact, the agency recently began using nasty new tools that can track cell phone location data by mimicking cell towers. These tools are called "stringrays" or cell-site simulators.

Last week, the IRS commissioner went before a Senate committee and acknowledged that the IRS uses stingray devices in criminal investigations.

In this post, we will note of concerns about the threat to privacy these devices pose.

Stingrays can not only be used to identify a cell phone's location. In certain circumstances, they can also be used to gain access to data from a phone in the targeted area.

Such devices are already used by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Their use by the IRS came out into the open last week when the Guardian, a leading British newspaper, disclosed it.

The day after the Guardian's report about stingrays, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified about them before the Senate Finance Committee.

Koskinen told the senators that the IRS does not use stingrays in investigations unless there is a court order. Under the peculiarities of federal law on electronic communications, however, getting a court order does not necessarily mean there was a showing of probable cause to suspect criminal activity.

In other words, the IRS appears to assert the right to use stingrays even if it hasn't applied for a search warrant.

Congressional concern about this is clear. The IRS is supposed to report back to the Senate Finance Committee within 30 days on how often it uses stringrays to track taxpayers' cell phones.

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