Cell Site Simulators: A Call for More Protective Federal Legislation

Laura DeGeer


It is unquestioned that many American citizens place great value on maintaining privacy from the spying eyes of government. After the 2013 leak of classified NSA information by CIA employee Edward Snowden, there has been a continuous conversation regarding the protection of technological privacy—the personal information that we store on our desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones. Of these technologies, cell phones are possibly the most central to our everyday lives. We carry our phones nearly everywhere with us, usually clenched tightly in our palms. They contain our personal and work emails, text messages with loved ones, catalogs of pictures documenting the recent months and years of our lives, our banking information, and secrets that may be too private to keep where others may stumble upon them. 

The American government and state officials are utilizing a newly developed device that directly affects this cellular privacy. These devices are called cell site simulators. With cell site simulators, officials are able to mimic cell towers and collect cellular data from any and all phones within a given geographic area. This information enables officials to pinpoint where a certain cell phone is located, and they are then able to use that information in a variety of different ways. The devices can be effective in narcotics investigations, tracking avalanche and kidnapping victims, as well as in other non-criminal investigations. The most obvious benefit of cell site simulators is large-scale crime reduction, but at what cost?

The device is relatively new, so few states have developed legislation concerning its use, and Congress has not codified any guiding acts. There have been several Supreme Court decisions concerning personal privacy and its relation to physical searches of cell phones and the data contained therein, as well as the use of technological surveillance in constitutionally protected areas. However, there is yet to be a decision concerning the constitutionality of searches using cell site simulators. It is imperative that Congress draft a clear, in-depth bill enumerating when, how, and by whom a cell site simulator may be used. When drafting the bill, several considerations must be taken into account, including Supreme Court jurisprudence concerning Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and the current status of legislation in each state of the United States. These considerations are addressed and discussed in turn. 

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/lawreview.2017.470


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