NY Cops Used 'Stingray' Spy Tool 46 Times Without a Warrant
The police department in Erie County, New York fought hard to prevent the New York Civil Liberties Union from obtaining records about its use of a controversial surveillance tool known as a stingray.
The reason why may be because of what the records show: that cops in that county, which includes the city of Buffalo, used the devices 47 times since 2010 but only once sought and obtained a court order to do so. That revelation contradicts what the county sheriff said last year when he asserted that the department only used the devices under “judicial review.”
In the single case in which police sought permission from a court, they asked for a court order rather than a warrant, which carries a higher burden of proof. And in their request, they mischaracterized the true nature of the tool.
The records, which the NYCLU published in a blog post today, also show that the county sheriff’s office signed a stringent gag order with the FBI to maintain secrecy about their stingray records. The department was told to withhold information about the devices in any documents filed with courts, such as affidavits and other documents describing how they obtained evidence in criminal cases. The department was even told that the FBI maintained the right to intervene in county prosecutions to request criminal cases be dismissed if there was a chance that a case might result in the disclosure of information about law enforcement’s use of stingrays.
“Stingrays are an advanced surveillance technology that can sweep up very private information, including information on innocent people,” NYCLU Western Region Director John Curr III said in a statement. “If the FBI can command the Sheriff’s Office to dismiss criminal cases to protect its secret stingrays, it is not clear how the $350,000 we are spending on stingray equipment is keeping the people of Buffalo safer.”
The revelations continue a trend in several states across the U.S. wherein law enforcement agencies have gone to great lengths to prevent the public from learning about their use of stingrays. The surveillance tool simulates a legitimate cell phone tower to trick mobile phones and other devices on a cellular network into connecting to the devices and revealing their location. Stingrays emit a signal that is stronger than the signal of other cell towers in the vicinity in order to force mobile phones and other devices to establish a connection with them and reveal their unique ID. Stingrays can then determine the direction from which the phone connected— a data point that can then be used to track the movement of the phone as it continuously connects to the fake tower.
Erie County similarly fought hard to prevent the NYCLU from obtaining these records but was ordered to turn them over by a court. The documents show that the sheriff’s office used stingrays at least 47 times between May 1, 2010 and October 3, 2014. The one time the department sought judicial approval was in October 2014, contrary to what Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard said in May, 2014: that the devices wereused under “judicial review” in all criminal matters, implying that investigators always seek court approval before using them.
Not only this, but the records show that when the department did seek a court order, they identified the spy tool they planned to use as a pen register device, not a stingray or cell site simulator. The use of the term “pen register device” is controversial. Law enforcement agencies maintain that stingrays operate like pen registers and are not invasive, but this doesn’t paint the picture. Pen registers record the numbers dialed from a specific phone number, but stingrays are used primarily to track the location and movement of a device and can be much more invasive than pen registers. By describing the tool as a pen register device to the judge, the law enforcement agency was withholding information about the full capability of the device.