The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today against the NYPD after the department refused to reveal important information about its acquisition of Stingrays—controversial surveillance devices that spy on cell phones nearby and that can be used to track location. The lawsuit comes after the NYCLU revealed in February that the NYPD has used Stingrays more than 1,000 times since 2008 in investigations ranging from robbery and drug cases to criminal contempt of court, without a written policy.
“The NYPD must come clean about what models of Stingrays it owns and how it acquires them,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “This is military grade technology with the potential to implicate the privacy of countless innocent New Yorkers. There’s no good reason why this basic information -- like how much it spends on what models of Stingrays -- is not in the public domain.”
By mimicking a cell tower, Stingrays allow the police to pinpoint a person’s location, and can sweep up information from nearby bystander cell phones. They can cost over a hundred thousand dollars. Certain models have additional capabilities and can collect the phone numbers that a person has been texting and calling and intercept the contents of communications.
Despite the NYCLU’s FOIL request, the NYPD has refused to provide information about how it funds acquisition of Stingrays, how much taxpayer money it spends on them and what models it is purchasing – the type of basic contractual information that should be part of the public domain.
The NYCLU’s lawsuit is part of its advocacy to lift the shroud of secrecy surrounding police departments’ use of surveillance devices, such as Stingrays and X-Ray vans, that were developed for military purposes but are now deployed in New York neighborhoods. In a similar lawsuit filed by the NYCLU last year, a State Supreme Court Justice ordered the Erie County Sheriff’s Office to reveal the same type of information sought in today’s action against the NYPD. Shortly after the NYCLU’s victory in that case, the New York State Police turned over information sought by the NYCLU that revealed the department spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on Stingrays and related equipment.