NYCLU Sues Erie County Sheriff

The New York Civil Liberties Union is suing the Erie County Sheriff’s Office over its use of cellphone surveillance. The Stingray device is used by law enforcement to locate and track people; it mimics a cell tower, prompting a cell phone to transmit its location and identifying information.

Although a warrant is not always needed for some surveillance, sometimes it is.

Via Slate


The problem isn’t just broad-based surveillance of people’s cell phone signals, but the fact that law enforcement agencies refuse to comply with Freedom of Information requests seeking data on how and how often the Stingray is used.

NYCLU is suing the Erie County Sheriff over its refusal to turn over information on its use of Stingrays, pursuant to FOIL:

“The Sheriff’s Office has spent more than $350,000 since 2008 on this surveillance equipment – it is ridiculous for them to suggest they have no paperwork or records on the matter,” said NYCLU staff attorney Mariko Hirose. “The blanket denial of our entire request, without any explanation, only underscores their wholesale disregard for the right to privacy.”

She also questioned the sheriff’s claim that the information the NYCLU is seeking could reveal criminal investigative techniques or endanger the life or safety of a person. She said the information “will enhance the public’s understanding of the sheriff’s use of Stingrays.”

The NYCLU says the surveillance devices were developed for military use and are about the size of a briefcase. It says the devices mimic cellphone towers and surreptitiously prompt cellphones in their vicinity to deliver data to them.

“Armed with Stingrays,” it says, “law enforcement can – without any assistance or consent from cellphone carriers – pinpoint a person’s location in the home, in a place of worship or in a doctor’s office, collect the phone numbers that a person has been texting and calling, and in some configurations, intercept the contents of communications.

“Stingrays also can be used to conduct mass surveillance on people in an area, whether for a protest or a lecture or a party,” it says. “Even when used to target a particular suspect, Stringrays sweep up information about innocent individuals who happen to be in the vicinity.”

Good for NYCLU. It’s not that law enforcement shouldn’t have this tool; it’s that we have a right to know how it’s used, and whether it’s being appropriately used.

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