June 15, 2020
Press Release

WASHINGTON - Last week, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles County), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr requesting an explanation as to whether the DOJ had authorized mass serveillance of Black Lives Matter protesters. The Members request clarity on whether powerful surveillance technologies such as cell-site simulators were being deployed against protesters.

In the letter, the Members write:

Dear Attorney General Barr:

            We write with great concern about law enforcement agencies targeting and surveilling protesters who are engaged in constitutionally protected expressions of free speech. Specifically, we request information about whether and how powerful surveillance technologies such as cell-site simulators (CSS) are being deployed against protesters, potentially chilling free speech. We are specifically troubled by a recent Justice Department memo authorizing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to “conduct covert surveillance” and “share intelligence with federal, state, local, and tribal counterparts” with regard to protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.  

We know from House Oversight Committee investigations and the work of civil liberties organizations that the U.S. Government has historically used CSS to track suspects, obtaining massive amounts of data on innocent people in the process. CSS are capable of collecting geolocation information and even the content of SMS messages and phone calls without the knowledge of the cell phone owner. These CSS trick phones into thinking they are interacting with legitimate cell towers, but in reality are connecting to a third party’s device emitting strong broadcast signals. The D.C. Court of Appeals in 2017 ruled that such surveillance absent a warrant constitutes an illegal search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Marshals Service – which the President deployed in Washington, D.C., on June 2 in response to protests – has outfitted Cessna planes with CSS known as “Dirtboxes” since at least 2014. The Dirtboxes are designed to pick up phone signals of anyone within range. According to Wired magazine, this “means that data on potentially tens of thousands of phones could be collected during a single flight.” More concerning is the fact that CSS technology has been loaned out to other agencies, including local police departments, with little to no oversight over their use, according to reports by WIRED magazine.

Given the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the transfer of this technology between and among agencies, we remain deeply concerned about its potential for surveillance abuse against innocent and vulnerable populations exercising their First Amendment rights. We request answers to the following questions about the Administration’s practices and legal posture with regard to surveillance policies by Friday, June 26 at the latest:

  1. Why is the Drug Enforcement Agency involved in law enforcement related to protests protected by the First Amendment? What is the reason for activating the Attorney General’s authority under 21 U.S.C. 878(a)(5) to authorize the DEA to enforce non-drug-related crimes?

  2. To date, have any agencies within the Department of Justice (DOJ) used CSS, or related technologies, to intercept communications, intentionally disrupt communications to or from phones, track location information, or identify individuals participating in protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder?  If yes, was the use of CSS authorized pursuant to a warrant?

  3. In 2015, DOJ published a policy governing its use of CSS technology. Please confirm whether this policy is still in effect, and whether all uses of DOJ-owned CSS by government agencies related to the recent protests has complied with this policy.

  4. If such technologies are deployed in the context of surveilling protesters, what measures are agencies taking to ensure that data from individuals is minimized and later purged if irrelevant from an investigatory standpoint?


Thank you for your attention to this matter.