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Probe cops' Stingray phone masts, senators tell US comms watchdog

Congresscritters want to know if cellphone snooping kit illegally jams connections

By Shaun Nichols, 7 Oct 2016

A group of US Senators has asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate concerns that police stingray devices are causing illegally high levels of interference to wireless networks.

In a letter addressed to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, Senators Bernie Sanders (I‑VT), Ron Wyden (D‑OR), Al Franken (D‑MN), Sherrod Brown (D‑OH), Elizabeth Warren (D‑MA), Ed Markey (D‑MA), Jeff Merkley (D‑OR), Tammy Baldwin (D‑WI), Tom Udall (D‑NM), Chris Coons (D‑DE), and Martin Heinrich (D‑NM) all asked the commission to determine whether the use of the phone tower simulators is preventing local communities from being able to properly use their phones.

The concern, say the senators, is that by relying on Stingrays for long-term surveillance, police are violating FCC provisions on harmful radio interference.

"Reliable access to telecommunications services is vital to Americans' ability to communicate and successfully engage in today's economy, and it is the FCC's responsibility to ensure that communications services are available to Americans of all backgrounds," the letter reads.

The interference issue has been noted in the past by community groups. Because Stingrays impersonate functioning cell phone towers, nearby devices – both those of the targeted individuals and law-abiding citizens – connect to the fake towers. This, critics argue, can create a service disruption when the fake towers are used for a prolonged period.

The senators go on to note that minority communities in particular are suffering from the problem, as police have been more likely to use stingrays in those areas.

"Law enforcement practices that excessively subject communities of color to heightened and potentially unlawful government surveillance only exacerbate this concern," the group writes.

"In this instance, there is also a possibility that the surveillance technology may more frequently interfere, however inadvertently, with the ability of minority communities to use wireless communications and emergency services."

The senators are asking the FCC to launch a formal investigation into whether the interference from stingrays is a violation of the Communications Act, and to provide a public report on their findings, along with any recommended action. ®

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