The NYPD has confirmed for the first time that it has deployed a controversial military-style cell phone-tracking device more than 1,000 times since 2008 to purportedly track down suspects—potentially exposing thousands of New Yorkers to unwarranted surveillance.
The devices, commonly known as “Stingrays,” were utilized by the police department 1,016 times between 2008 and May 2015, the NYPD said. The disclosure was in response to a freedom of information lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union last year.
The documents also reveal that the NYPD has no written policy with regards to Stingrays and only obtains low-level court orders known as “pen registration orders” to legally utilize the technology. Such orders are not as protective of privacy as a warrant, the NYCLU said.
“If carrying a cell phone means being exposed to military grade surveillance equipment, then the privacy of nearly all New Yorkers is at risk,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, in a statement. “Considering the NYPD’s troubling history of surveilling innocent people, it must at the very least establish strict privacy policies and obtain warrants prior to using intrusive equipment like Stingrays that can track people’s cell phones.”
Lieberman was referring to Stingrays’ ability to not only track down a suspect’s cell phone by mimicking cell towers but also potentially invasive dragnet surveillance of innocent bystanders caught in its crosshairs.
The device is so powerful it can collect phone numbers, and in some cases, vacuum up the actual content of communications, civil liberties groups say.
The American Civil Liberties Union has confirmed that Stingrays are being used by 59 different agencies across 23 states. The latest disclosure brings to three the number of known local law enforcement agencies operating the device in New York State: NYPD, New York State Police, and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office.
Stingrays were first developed for the military but have become popular among federal agencies and local police departments.
Last September, the Department of Justice unveiled new guidelines for the use of Stingrays as to “enhance transparency and accountability…and increase privacy protections.”
“Cell-site simulator technology has been instrumental in aiding law enforcement in a broad array of investigations, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations, and complicated narcotics cases,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said at the time.
Under the DOJ’s new guidelines, authorities must obtain a search warrant before using Stingrays.
It’s very likely that the number of agencies using the technology is higher than the 59 the public is aware of. Simply getting police departments to admit ownership of Stingrays has been a tall order. Even when freedom of information requests are made, agencies may refuse to release information because of a non-disclosure agreement they sign with the FBI upon purchasing the equipment. Also, police departments may skirt legislative approval or public disclosure by applying for federal grants to purchase the devices instead of reaching into department budgets.
It’s that veil of secrecy that civil liberties groups have been seeking to lift and expose to sunlight.
Through its lawsuit, the NYCLU learned that the NYPD only has to establish that information is “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation” to obtain a pen register order. But the process “does not adequately protect the privacy of New Yorkers from these sophisticated surveillance devices,” the NYCLU warned.
“New Yorkers have very real concerns about the NYPD’s adoption of intrusive surveillance technology,” NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose said in a statement. “The NYPD should at minimum obtain warrants before using Stingrays to protect the privacy of innocent people.”
Stingrays are the subject of a powerful docu-series narrated by Oscar-nominated actress Maggie Gyllenhaal which premiered on Pivot last month, called “Truth and Power.”