With all the spying and eavesdropping Big Brother seems to get away with these days, it’s nice to get a win for privacy occasionally. This week privacy advocates notched a major win in their belt when Federal Judge William H. Pauley III, of the Southern District of New York, ruled that a defendant’s rights were violated when the Drug Enforcement Agency used a ‘Stingray’ device to determine the suspect’s home address during a drug investigation.


In ruling on the United States of America vs. Raymond Lambis case, Judge Pauley wrote, “The use of a cell-site simulator constitutes a Fourth Amendment search…Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device.” The ruling marks the first time that a Federal judge has made such a ruling and has been hailed as a significant victory for privacy according to the ACLU.


According to the ACLU, who has a long history of criticizing the use of and secrecy surrounding the Stingray, at least 66 law enforcement agencies in 24 states and Washington, D.C. use the devices. However, the civil liberties group also warns that the actual number of agencies using Stingrays could be much higher.


Image/ SoFuego

Image/ SoFuego

After the ruling, Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney for the ACLU, told reporters, “after decades of secret and warrantless use of Stingray technology by federal law enforcement to track phones, a federal court has finally held the authorities to account.”


Wessler went on to say, “The feds are now firmly on notice that when they hide their intent to use invasive surveillance technology from courts and fail to get a warrant, their evidence will be suppressed. This opinion strongly reinforces the strength of our constitutional privacy rights in the digital age.”


In March, a Maryland appellate court ruled against the State’s argument that anyone turning on a phone was sharing their whereabouts with the police “voluntarily.”


While it’s too early to tell how the two cases will play out (the government is sure to appeal in both cases, ) it appears that opponents of electronic surveillance may have – at least temporarily – won a major victory.