POLITICS

Judge Orders Sheriff's Office To Release Information On Cell Phone Spying Program

03/17/2015 06:50 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

A New York judge ruled on Tuesday that the Erie County Sheriff's Office must publicly release information regarding its use of invasive cell phone surveillance equipment.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer ordered the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, whose jurisdiction includes Buffalo, New York, to turn over documents pertaining to its use of "StingRay" surveillance devices, also known as cell site simulators. The ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union over a request under New York's Freedom of Information Law, which the Sheriff's Office denied last year.

“The Erie County Sheriff has claimed military-grade secrecy to prevent the release of information about how it uses Stingrays against its own residents,” John A. Curr III, director of the NYCLU’s Western Regional Office, said in a statement. “But this is not Iraq or Afghanistan -- this is Buffalo. And we have a right to know what the Sheriff is doing to us in the name of keeping us safe.”

The small, rectangular StingRay devices operate like cell phone towers, sending out signals to trick mobile phones in the area into transmitting their identifying information and locations, thereby providing law enforcement with what is called metadata.

The devices are meant for tracking down criminal suspects, terrorists or missing persons. However, they don’t scan solely for information on a single target phone; rather, they collect data from every cell phone in a given area. Some StingRay devices can even capture the content of calls, text messages and emails.

Erie County's use of the devices was uncovered by NBC affiliate WGRZ in the spring of 2014, after reporters at the outlet obtained documents showing the county had spent over $350,000 on the surveillance equipment. Even after the report's release, the Sheriff's Office wouldn’t confirm or deny the use of StingRay devices.

Tuesday’s ruling, however, will force the office to reveal how often it uses the cell site simulators, whether it obtains search warrants before doing so, and any other policies or guidelines surrounding the use of StingRays, including how the collected data is stored.

The Sheriff's Office will also have to turn over documentation -- with names redacted -- of particular cases in which StingRays were used, according to the ruling.

“The court today has confirmed that law enforcement cannot hide behind a shroud of secrecy while it is invading the privacy of those it has sworn to protect and serve,” NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose, the lead counsel on the case, said in a statement Tuesday. “The public has a right to know how, when and why this technology is being deployed, and they deserve to know what safeguards and privacy protections, if any, are in place to govern its use.”

The Erie County Sheriff's Office was closed Tuesday when The Huffington Post called for comment, but Andrea Schillaci, the attorney representing the office, told ABC7 that secrecy about law enforcement agencies' use of the equipment is crucial.

“The equipment that is in use is, as we stated earlier, used on a local national and international level, so to the extent that it is effective in those arenas, there is a value of limiting the information that is available about it to the general public,” she said.

A New York Times report earlier this week revealed that Harris Corporation -- which manufactures and distributes the devices, including the ones used in Erie County -- requires law enforcement agencies to sign nondisclosure agreements, preventing them from saying anything publicly about the technology.

The secrecy shrouding the purchases of StingRay devices makes it difficult to determine how many police departments and other law enforcement agencies use the equipment. However, the American Civil Liberties Union says it has identified 48 law enforcement agencies in 20 states and the District of Columbia that own the StingRay devices, though it notes that the actual number is likely much higher. At least 12 federal agencies -- including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency -- also use the devices, according to the ACLU.

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