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Doris Matsui questions FCC on controversial ‘Stingray’ surveillance technology

Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, went off script during a Communications and Technology Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday and asked the head of the Federal Communications Commission about local law enforcement’s use of controversial surveillance technology that has come under fire from civil liberties activists.

In a meeting with FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler, Matsui addressed law enforcement’s use of so-called “Stingray technology,” which traps cellphone data by tricking the mobile device into thinking it’s a cell tower and allows detectives to collect location data from the cellphones of investigative targets, with or without a court order. According to a statement released by the congresswoman’s office, Matsui pressed Wheeler on why there wasn’t more federal oversight of how the technology is used by local agencies, such as the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

“The public should have access to more information about the Stingray device, including what it is being used for, its surveillance capabilities, and who has access to the sensitive information that it collects,” Matsui said at the hearing. “Despite some assurances to the contrary, it is unclear to me – and many others – how the Stingray device does not collect data on innocent Americans.”

The congresswoman’s comments come a little more than a week after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Sheriff’s Department over its refusal to release documents surrounding how the Stingray devices are used, what information is being collected and how that intelligence is being used and stored.

Sheriff Scott Jones has said his office responded to the ACLU’s request for documents when it was made – last summer – and provided “many documents” to the group.

“Any documents that may have been withheld were so withheld under appropriate exemptions that exist under the (California Public Records Act and elsewhere,” Jones said in a statement last week. “I have made public statements in the past that this technology comes from the federal government with a strict confidentiality agreement which precludes me from talking publicly about it or its capabilities, which has allowed the ACLU and Channel 10, along with others, to gratuitously overstate its use and capabilities for their own purposes, knowing that I cannot defend the allegations.”

In her statements Thursday, Matsui also expressed concern that the public may get such devices, which could jeopardize the privacy of citizens’ phone calls, text messages, data and contacts. The Sheriff’s Department received devices directly from the federal government and has been using them since the mid-2000s.

Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.

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