Sandra Smith was sitting in her van, waiting to pick up her kids from sports practice.
As usual, she was talking on her phone.
“All of the sudden, men’s voices broke into the cellphone while I was talking,” she said.
Smith asked her friend if she, too, could hear the voices. Immediately, she said, the voices stopped.
Smith had owned a cellphone for 15 years, she said, and hadn’t had that happen. A few weeks later, it happened again.
Her research led her to learn more about devices that are raising eyebrows across the country and are the subject of a bill before the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Called “cell-site simulators,” “IMSI-catchers” or by the brand name “StingRay,” the surveillance gadgets trick cellphones into connecting to them instead of regular cell towers. Then they allow users to see the location of cellphones in an area, metadata about calls and all activity on the phone.
Legislative Bill 738, introduced by Crete Sen. Laura Ebke, would make it illegal for Nebraska law enforcement agencies to use the devices.
Similar bills are being considered around the country as the usage of the devices becomes more common. Nearly 2,000 cases are being reviewed in Baltimore after police used the devices without defense attorneys’ knowledge.
The problem with the devices, Ebke said, is that they cannot target one individual. Instead, they collect information on all cellphones in an area.
Deputy Douglas County Attorney Jeff Lux testified against the bill, saying he had been involved in a case in which the technology proved essential.
Federal authorities were after a methamphetamine dealer, he said. The dealer kept buying burner phones, throwing the old one away and changing his phone number.
With a cell-site simulator, investigators could match the device to their surveillance observations to find his number. The suspect picked up his phone as the cell-site simulator showed an incoming call, for example. After a few such instances, they had him.
Lux said he went to a district judge to get a warrant, and he arranged for other data to be thrown away.
“All the rest of the numbers, all the rest of the information, deleted,” he said. “We didn’t want the government holding this information in a database or anything, because that’s improper.”
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