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Info Demanded on Airborne Federal Snooping

(CN) - The nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Department of Justice on Tuesday for information about the cell-phone tracking systems mounted in U.S. Marshals Service planes.

In its federal FOIA complaint, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says The Wall Street Journal revealed on Nov. 13, 2014 that U.S. Marshals have been flying small planes mounted with IMSI catchers since 2007.

IMSI catchers, also called "stingrays," emulate cell phone towers and can capture locations of tens of thousands of cell phones during a single flight, the complaint states.

The Wall Street Journal article reported that the Marshals fly aircraft "from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population."

An unidentified source told the Journal that the stingray "'determines which phones belong to suspects and "lets go" of the non-suspect phones.' Some similar devices are able to 'jam signals and retrieve data from a target phone such as texts or photos,'" the Journal reported, as cited in the complaint in District of Columbia Federal Court.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation claims that some members of the Department of Justice have questioned the legality of the devices, and that the federal government has tried to hide their use from the public, via nondisclosure agreements and record seizures.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation requested records concerning the stingrays on Nov. 2014, including legal protocols, where the devices have been deployed, and policies, procedures and training materials for using them.

It says the Department of Justice acknowledged receipt of the request but not provided any documents.

Andrew Crocker, legal fellow for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in a telephone interview that the devices compromise the privacy of innocent people as well as criminals.

"Even if they're looking for just one suspect, that's a lot of people's personal information that's being sucked up," Crocker said. "We've also seen that when the government uses the information to prosecute people, it doesn't feel that it has to inform the defendants that they've used stingray technology, and that means the defendants don't have the means to challenge it under the Fourth Amendment.

"There's a lot of secrecy around it."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wants to see the records.

It is represented by house attorney David Sobel.

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