March 17, 2015 — In a victory for the public’s right to know, a Supreme Court judge in Buffalo this afternoon ruled that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office must disclose public information “stingrays,” devices that can track and record New Yorkers’ locations via their cell phones. The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the Sheriff’s Office in November for failing to follow the law and respond to public information about how it uses the devices.
“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,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose, lead counsel on the case. “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 NYCLU first filed a Freedom of Information request in June after local media reports revealed that the Sheriff’s Office was using mobile devices known as stingrays to pick up signals from all cell phones and wireless devices within a given area, collecting information on the comings and goings of people in the process.
Stingrays can collect information on all cell phones in a given area as well as precisely track particular phones, locating people within their own home, at a doctor’s office, at a political protest or in a church. Some stingrays and similar devices are even configured to record private conversations.
“The Erie County Sheriff has claimed military grade secrecy to prevent the release of information about how it uses stingrays against its own residents,” said John A. Curr III, director of the NYCLU’s Western Regional Office. “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.”