The Buzz

IRS Can Track Your Cell Phone, but Leaves Billions in Taxes Uncollected

While the Internal Revenue Service continues to leave uncollected tax money on the table, the agency beefed up its surveillance capabilities in a move that alarms both conservative and liberal privacy advocates.

Now some complain the IRS is acting too much like Big Brother and not enough like a traditional taxman.

Since 2006, the IRS has overseen an annual tax gap—the shortfall between taxes owed and collected—of about $385 billion, government analysts say. And according to an April report, the agency has not implemented 70 of 112 actions identified by the Government Accountability Office to close that loop.

In 2009, though, the IRS purchased a “cell-site simulator,” more commonly known as Stingray technology. And since November, the agency has been trying to buy another of the devices.

Like something from a spy movie, a Stingray device mimics a cellphone tower, tricking all mobile phones in an area into revealing their location and numbers. Authorities can deploy the powerful technology to tag and track an individual’s location in real time.

More advanced versions of the devices can be used to copy information stored on a cellphone and to download malware remotely.

The devices are as controversial as they are prevalent. According to theAmerican Civil Liberties Union, 61 agencies in 23 states and the District of Columbia own the devices.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says the IRS uses its Stingray to hunt down fraudsters and stop money laundering. The agency’s use of the devices remained a secret until an October report in the Guardian.

In a November letter to House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Koskinen wrote that the agency’s technology “cannot be used to intercept the content of real-time communications” such as voicemails, text messages, and emails. Instead, the IRS chief said, the device has been used “to track 37 phone numbers.”

And the IRS commissioner insists his agency deploys the tech only in accordance with state and federal laws.

But during an April 13 hearing of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the deputy IRS commissioner for service and enforcement, John Dalrymple, couldn’t say whether the IRS obtained a warrant before activating the device.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, says he finds that concerning.