The U.S. Department of Justice has announced a new policy governing how federal agents use a surveillance tool that mimics cellphone towers and has been a source of grave privacy concerns.

Under the policy, agents would have to get a search warrant before using the device, known as a cell-site simulator, or StingRay, to locate and track cellphones. The most common versions of the device are portable boxes that sit in an investigator’s car but U.S. Marshals use them in planes to hunt for fugitives.

wireless cell phoneThe new rules also bar agents from using cell-site simulators to intercept content such as emails or text messages and require them to delete data collected on innocent Americans as soon as they catch the suspect they are seeking.

“The policy is really designed to try to promote transparency, consistency, and accountability, all while being mindful of the public’s privacy,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates told reporters Thursday.

Civil libertarians have been concerned that the device not only allows authorities to determine the location of a tracked phone, but also connects with all other phones in the area, giving investigators access to information on people not suspected of any crime.

The changes are “a real step forward by the Justice Department in protecting privacy rights,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nathan Freed Wessler told the Wall Street Journal. “For far too long, they have maintained excessive and corrosive secrecy about the use of this technology … This should have been the policy many years ago.”

But the policy does not cover state or local law enforcement agencies unless they are engaged in a joint task force with federal authorities. “That is sure to rankle civil liberties groups, which have fought for greater transparency around when and how the devices are used by law enforcement agencies,” The New York Times said.

Cell-site simulators trick all cellphones in range into thinking a device is the nearest cellphone tower. The technology was first developed by the CIA to hunt terrorists and espionage targets.

Image: Thinkstock

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