FBI Pushes The Limits of Their Power – Again

With growing concerns about our privacy, it seems a shame we have to look out not just for the criminals, but also to our government. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has once again pushed the boundaries of their power. In a letter, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and staffer Sen. Chuck Grassley expressed concerns and requested clarification on a number of issues with a recent change in policy by the Feds.

In their letter, the senators requested more information on what policies are in place to protect the privacy of mobile phone users information that is gathered using IMSI catchers. An IMSI catcher is a surveillance tool used by law enforcement to trick people’s phones into sending out data to the FBI. It works by mimicking a cell phone tower and getting the phone to connect to it. When a phone connects to it, the operator can “ping” the phone in order to locate it. Law enforcement uses these Devices to help locate suspects and aid in search-and-rescue efforts.

Also read: The Government Keeps ‘Stingray’ IMSI Catchers Secret

FBIPrivacy Doesn’t Exist

While the FBI’s current policy states that it needs to obtain a search warrant, there are three big cases in which they do not. The senator’s letter points these out:

For example, we understand that the FBI’s new policy requires FBI agents to obtain a search warrant whenever a cell-site simulator is used as part of a FBI investigation or operation, unless one of several exceptions apply, including (among others): (1) cases that pose an imminent danger to public safety, (2) cases that involve a fugitive, or (3) cases in which the technology is used in public places or other locations at which the FBI deems there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The most obvious concern is that anyone with their phone in public is as risk of having their data scooped up and the FBI’s ability to protect that data. Recent news showed that the FBI is mounting these tools on small aeroplanes and gathers data from thousands of phones in a single flight.

Leahy and Grassley also expressed concerns about the leniency in the Feds policy:

We have concerns about the scope of the exceptions. Specifically, we are concerned about whether the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have adequately considered the privacy interests of other individuals who are not the targets of the interception, but whose information is nevertheless being collected when these devices are being used. We understand that the FBI believes that it can address these interests by maintaining that information for a short period of time and purging the information after it has been collected. But there is a question as to whether this sufficiently safeguards privacy interests.

The FBI and the Obama Administration has been treating privacy in public as if it doesn’t exist. The Obama Administration argued that putting GPS trackers on cars without a warrant was OK arguing that people shouldn’t expect privacy while driving in public. Along with updating their policy to allow for wide-range phone interception, the FBI petitioned for new power allowing them to hack into a computer and carry out surveillance around the world more easily.

It’s one thing to overhear a conversation in public; it’s an entirely different to have your line tapped and your text messages intercepted just because you are within the vicinity of a suspect. Unless we keep law enforcement and government in check, they will continue to push their authority and annihilate any privacy altogether.

Images from Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock.

A UNC Chapel Hill graduate, blockchain enthusiast and analyst. I have a background in programming and IT, strong studies in econ, stats and game theory. I'm interested in online privacy and privacy laws.