The New York Civil Liberties Union released today records it received from the Erie County Sheriff’s Office on its use of ”stingrays,” devices that can track and record New Yorkers’ locations via their cell phones. The records showed that of the 47 times the Sheriff’s Office used stingrays in the past four years, it apparently only once obtained a court order, contradicting the sheriff’s own remarks.
“These records confirm some of the very worst fears about local law enforcement’s use of this expensive and intrusive surveillance equipment,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “Not only did the Sheriff’s Office promise the FBI breathtaking secrecy to keep information about stingrays as hidden as possible, it implemented almost no privacy protections for the Erie County residents it is sworn to protect and serve.”
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.
In March, a Supreme Court Justice ruled that the Sheriff’s Office must disclose information about stingrays after the NYCLU sued the office for failing to follow the law and respond to public information requests about how it uses the devices.
The court ordered disclosure of all existing records requested by the NYCLU, including purchase orders, a letter from the stingrays' manufacturer, a confidentiality agreement with between the Sheriff’s Office and the FBI, a procedural manual and summary reports of instances in which the device was used.
The records reveal that:
- The Sheriff’s Office used stingrays at least 47 times between May 1, 2010 and October 3, 2014, including assisting other law enforcement departments like the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
- The office apparently obtained a court order prior to using the device only once in those 47 circumstances, contradicting the sheriff’s statements to a local reporter and the legislature that this device is being used subject to “judicial review.” In the one case a court order was obtained, in October 2014, the sheriff did not obtain a warrant but a lower level court order called a “pen register” order.
- Its confidentiality agreement with the FBI requires the Sheriff’s Office to maintain almost total secrecy over stingray records, including in court filings and when responding to court orders, unless the Sheriff’s Office receives the written consent of the FBI.
- Its confidentiality agreement with the FBI also instructs the Sheriff’s Office that the FBI may request it to dismiss criminal prosecutions rather than risk compromising the secrecy of how stingrays are used.
“Stingrays are an advanced surveillance technology that can sweep up very private information, including information on innocent people,” said NYCLU Western Region Director John Curr III. “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.”