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Victory against secret fake cell phone towers shows privacy isn't dead

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Reprinted from The Guardian

Judges are pushing back against stingray devices and other ways law enforcement attempts to engage in unconstitutional surveillance of Americans

From twitter.com/Dr_K_Albrecht/status/639890924500332544/photo/1: Image from Twitter User milesoftruth
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Don't look now, but digital privacy rights are making a major comeback in the United States. Thursday saw the latest in a series of recent victories for those who are against secret and unconstitutional surveillance.

After years of dogged investigations by journalists and relentless pressure by lawyers and advocates, the Justice Department abruptly changed its policy around stingray mass surveillance devices -- roving, fake cell phone towers that the FBI and other government agencies use to force all the phones in their vicinity to connect to and feed your personal data. Finally, federal law enforcement will be required to get a judge-signed warrant before using the tool. They'll have to delete the data of innocent people immediately, and clearly explain to judges what they're doing.

The extreme secrecy surrounding the government's use of the tools has been controversial for years, not only since stringrays can vacuum up information on whole neighborhoods at a time, but because the government has been concealing their use from even prosecutors and judges.

Hanni Fakhoury @HanniFakhoury
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The idea that DOJ needs a policy telling law enforcement to be honest to judges is pretty troubling.

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While it's a significant step up for the Fourth Amendment rights of all Americans, there are still some huge holes: state and local governments don't have to abide by the rules. It's also just a policy -- not the law, so there's nothing preventing the Justice Department from changing it again. And there's a good argument it's illegal to use them at all, since they can find people inside private homes without getting a warrant for each house they search. But given that, up until recently, the FBI wouldn't even publicly acknowledge stingrays existed -- let alone require a warrant -- this is a huge win.

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Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and lawyer who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He has contributed to  The (more...)

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