The IRS are getting a taste of their own medicine, courtesy of investigation by Sens. Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy, into the IRS’s use of cell phone tracking by way of cell site simulators, or “StingRays.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Patrick Leahy have demanded answers regarding the use of cell site simulator technology by the IRS. In their letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, both senators expressed their concern.
While the devices can be useful tools for identifying the location of a suspect’s cell phone or identifying an unknown cell phone, we have previously expressed concerns about the privacy implications of these devices.
StingRays are more commonly utilized by local and federal law enforcement in order to track down identifying and locational information from a suspect’s phone. The technology does this by mimicking a cell phone tower, tricking phones into connecting to them in order to pull relevant information on the subject under investigation — and in the process, doing the same to any other phones in the area as well.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen admitted that the agency does, in fact, use the technology. The admission was cornered by The Guardian, who found that the IRS had spent $71,000 on StingRay device upgrades and training from the manufacturer.
The use of cell site simulation has always been somewhat suspect. In the past, law enforcement has been more willing to drop criminal charges than to disclose the methods of their use. But Koskinen claimed that the devices are only being used in criminal investigations and not in civil matters.
What it does is to primarily allow you to see point-to-point, where communications are taking place. It does not allow you to overhear — the technique doesn’t — voice communications … You may pick up texting. But what I would stress is that it does follow Justice Department rules. It requires a court order.
Both the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security have recently released new regulations, requiring warrants and probable cause before a StingRay can be deployed. As for the IRS, we’re still waiting for information on just how many devices they have, and what, if any, accountability is in place regarding their use.