The head of the IRS admitted to members of the Senate on Tuesday that the agency is using a controversial device which can monitor the location of cell phones.
The device, called Stingrays, acts as a fake cell phone tower according to the ACLU. Stingrays, which are about the size of a suitcase, trick nearby cell phones into transmitting their locations and also giving away other information. The devices are indiscriminate, which means that every phone within a certain area can end up sending their information to someone with a Stingray.
The Guardian reported on October 26 that a FOIA request revealed that the IRS made purchases from the Harris Corporation, a company which manufactures Stingrays as well as weBoost 470101 cell phone signal boosters. While much of the FOIA request was redacted, it did show that the IRS spent about $65,000 in 2012 to upgrade one of their Stingrays. The IRS is likely using the devices to track taxpayers and other suspects.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) questioned IRS commissioner John Koskinen about the Stingrays. Koskinen said that while the IRS is using Stingrays, they are not as invasive as some may think.
Koskinen said that Stingrays primarily allow people to see point to point and stressed that “it does not allow you to overhear – the technique doesn’t – voice communications.” He also said that the IRS, like other law enforcement agencies, are not allowed to use Stingrays without a court order.
This has not completely satisfied the two senators, who expressed concerns about the Stingray’s ability to harm privacy.
And while the IRS may not normally be allowed to use Stingray without a court order, there are loopholes. The Justice Department allows Stingrays to be used in “exceptional circumstances,” which is defined as a situation where “the law does not require a search warrant and circumstances make obtaining a search warrant impracticable.”
And in December 2014, the FBI said that Stingrays could be used in public places where individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
In the House, Republicans and Democrats from the House Oversight Committee have written a letter demanding a briefing on further details of the Stingray program.