The Cybersecurity 202: Michael Cohen investigators relied on controversial cell-tracking device

FBI agents wanted to search Michael Cohen’s hotel room, but didn’t know which room he was in. So, they used a controversial device that captured his cellphone’s location.

 

The revelation — included in a trove of search warrant documents released Tuesday in the case of President Trump’s former personal lawyer — sheds some light on how police are using the suitcase-sized devices, which mimic cellphone towers and can scoop up data from any phone that bounces off them.

 

Federal law enforcement has long used the devices — known as “cell site simulators,” StingRays, or by various other brand names — to pinpoint suspects’ locations. And, before a 2015 policy shift, they may have also used them to gather other information such as text messages and emails.

 

Foreign adversaries may also be using StingRays in Washington to spy on Americans.

 

The Cohen case presents a relatively uncontroversial use of the tools, but it also highlights the concerns many privacy advocates have about them — that they’re far more intrusive than other options and more prone to scoop up information about innocent bystanders.

 

“It’s like taking a baseball bat to a mosquito,” Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, told me.

 

The 2015 Justice Department policy came after privacy and civil liberties activists protested what they said were abuses of the devices.

 

The U.S. Marshals Service, for example, used the devices to track 6,000 cellphones, according to a USA Today report. In some cases, the service even took them on airplanes and scooped up information from tens of thousands of people on the ground below to locate a few criminal suspects, the Wall Street Journal reported.

 

Source: The Washington Post

 

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