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Call tower simulators: Liberty vs. security

| Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The Founders and Framers prized liberty over security. But that balance is tougher to maintain when technology outpaces the law. And that's the case with the FBI's use of “cell tower simulators” that can intercept all cellphone traffic in a neighborhood.

A Trib investigation found such devices have intercepted untold numbers of innocent Pittsburghers' calls, along with those of criminal suspects. An FBI spokesman defends this technology's use as “a vital component of law enforcement investigations” that could be harmed by public discussion of details.

The feds extensively redacted nearly 5,000 related documents obtained by the Trib and will say little else. Their stance is essentially “trust us.” Yet the FBI's legal basis for charging ahead with this technology is rooted in land-line wiretaps.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on a cell tower simulator case. Congress hasn't passed rules for these devices. And FBI secrecy — from what's done with gathered data, to coaching agents on testifying about this technology without divulging details, to no-bid contracts and other methods that obscure how it's acquired and what it costs — invites scrutiny and frustrates debate.

For the law to catch up with this technology, as it must, informed debate must occur among Congress, courts and the public. And, yes, new rules must be set that adequately protect security. But like the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches — which hasn't changed — those rules must place paramount importance on liberty.

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