Two distinguished senators are now examining the use of secret cellphone tracking systems by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The systems are often reserved for, and used by, federal and local law enforcement agencies.
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen stated that the agency has been using cell-site simulators, also known as StingRays. The revelation came after The Guardian noted that the IRS has spent $71,000 for an improved version of the technology, in addition to obtaining further training from the company that manufactures the devices.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Patrick Leahy sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew on Thursday, requesting to know the reason why IRS was using this technology.
“We were surprised to learn that IRS investigators may be using these devices,” Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Mr. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, stated in the letter. “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.”
The use of StingRays
Cell site-simulators function by mirroring cellphone towers to fool cell phones into connecting with them. This allows investigators to obtain information about the phone and its location. Law enforcement officers tend to use StingRays by storing them in vehicles as they drive through a neighborhood in search for a suspect’s home, obtaining information from anyone with a cell phone passing by.
Approximately twelve other agencies have access to StingRays, including the U.S. military, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and Homeland Security.
Koskinen testified before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, claiming the StingRays were only used for criminal investigations and not for matters that pertained to citizens.
“It is only used in criminal investigations,” Commissioner John Koskinen said as he testified before the Senate Finance Committee. “It can only be used with a court order. It can only be used based on probable cause of criminal activity. 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. It requires probable cause with regard to criminal investigations. It is not used in civil matters at all. It is not used by other employees of the IRS.”
To the contrary, a retired IRS official, who has been out of office for several years now, told sources, “I only know that to my knowledge and other very experienced tax counsel in the US, we have never seen it in a tax case.”
Koskinen was unable to answer how many times StringRays had been used by the IRS, but said he would provide a concrete answer in writing to Sen. Wyden within 30 days.
Justice department raises bar on the use of StingRays
Law enforcement agencies have used the technology behind closed doors in the past. Some police departments were even willing to drop criminal charges in order to withhold investigation tactics. Critics have noted that using any surveillance device in secret increases the risk of abuse.
Federal agencies have made it more difficult to use StringRays. The Justice Department in September issued new regulations that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants vindicated by probable cause prior to using the technology.
The senators are now trying to obtain information on how the IRS has used the technology, how often it is being used, and what type of regulations are in place to prevent their abuse.