ICE is eavesdropping on cell phone conversations, Tester wants accountability

by Yellowstone Public Radio, Nate Hegyi

Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester wants immigration officials to tell Congress when they eavesdrop on cell phone conversations. His proposal is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s 2018 budget, which is still under consideration in Congress.

From the mountains of Afghanistan to the deserts of Iraq, the federal government has been listening in on foreign cell phone conversations for years. But in 2016, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, were caught eavesdropping on calls here in the U.S.

They were trying to root out an undocumented immigrant in Detroit. While they did it with a search warrant approved by a judge, Tester says that is a slippery slope.

“We need to be very careful not to allow for government overreach because I think it can happen very, very quickly,” he says.

So Tester has written up a provision requiring the Department of Homeland Security report when they use devices, called IMSI catchers, to listen in on cell phone conversations.

These IMSI catchers are about the size of a toaster.

“They send out a signal that mimics the signal of a real cell tower,” says Nate Freed Wessler, an attorney with the ACLU.

He says the IMSI catcher works like a fish net, grabbing data from everyone’s cell phone until it zeroes in on a suspect.

“It ends up sweeping in information about lots of bystanders who have absolutely nothing to do with the law enforcement investigation at issue,” he says.

This raises privacy concerns. Wessler believes there needs to be more judicial and legislative oversight for these devices. So he and his organization, the ACLU, support Tester’s proposal. They say it’s a good first step.

“It’s not the only protection that we need but it’s a crucial one,” he says.

Tester’s proposal would force ICE to tell Congress the number of times the agency has used IMSI catchers and how many suspects these devices apprehended.

But first it needs approval in Congress and the President’s signature. The provision is part of the Homeland Security’s proposed 2018 budget, which is currently stalled out in a Senate committee.