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Judge Rules Police Need Warrant To Monitor Cellphone Traffic

An Apple staff member demonstrates a new Verizon iPhone 4 at Verizon's iPhone 4 launch event in New York, in this file picture taken January 11, 2011. (Brendan McDermid/REUTERS)

New York police now need a warrant before using devices to monitor a suspect’s cellphone and internet traffic after a Brooklyn judge ruled against the New York Police Department Wednesday.

Justice Martin Murphy’s ruling threw out the case against an attempted murder suspect because police had unconstitutionally used cell-site simulators to monitor the suspect’s cellphone, including texts and calls, The New York Times reported. A cell-site simulator is a device which intercepts data from cellphones by tricking them into thinking it is a cellphone tower. The ruling requires police to obtain an eavesdropping warrant to do use the simulators in the future.

Police maintain that eavesdropping warrants are unnecessary, as they are only required for recording a suspect’s traffic, whereas the simulators can only monitor and have no ability to record. Police also claimed that they have an internal policy of establishing probable cause before using a simulator.

New York is one of several jurisdictions that are facing legal action to further regulate police use of the devices. The first city in the United States to take action was Silicon Valley, requiring law enforcement to receive prior approval before using the tech to snoop around.

It is difficult to discover what the devices are capable of beyond monitoring cellphone traffic, however, as its producer – the Harris Corporation – requires police to sign a non-disclosure agreement before purchasing them.

“The use of a cell-site simulator intrudes upon an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, acting as an instrument of eavesdropping, and requires a separate warrant supported by probable cause,” Murphy concluded.

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