IRS promises to get a search warrant before spying on cellphones

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says his agency will comply with the DOJ's new rules.

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The IRS will no longer use "Stingray" cellphone-tracking devices unless the agency receives a search warrant supported by probable cause, in accordance with the Department of Justice's Policy Guidance, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says in a letter. The agency's use of Stingray surveillance devices went public in October, though at the time it was unclear how (and how often) the IRS used the technology. Stingray devices mimic cell towers to trick nearby phones into connecting to them, allowing the user to track locations, record calls and access text communications.

In today's letter, Koskinen says the IRS has just one Stingray-style device -- though it's trying to get another -- and only the agency's Criminal Investigation division ever used it. The IRS-CI tracked a total of 44 cellular devices across 15 investigations since 2011, ranging from federal grand jury to state inquiries, Koskinen says.

The DOJ's Policy Guidance regarding Stingray devices requires federal agencies to "obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause prior to using the technology except in exigent or exceptional circumstances," Koskinen writes. The DOJ policy also states Stingray devices can't be used to collect email or text communications at all. He promises the IRS policy will mirror these requirements.

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