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NYCLU-Obtained Documents Reveal Secrecy, Lack of Court Oversight in Use of Invasive Stingray Technology

Radio tower with radio waves emanating from it
Radio tower with radio waves emanating from it
Mariko Hirose,
Staff Attorney,
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April 7, 2015

Last June, the New York Civil Liberties Union asked the Erie County Sheriff’s Office to release information to the public about how it uses stingrays, which are used to track and record New Yorkers’ locations via their cell phones, and can collect information on all cell phones in a given area as well as track and locate particular phones. The Sheriff’s Office refused, so in November we sued. Last month, a New York state Supreme Court Justice ruled in our favor, telling the Sheriff’s Office that it had to hand these documents over.

Today, NYCLU made public the records that it received in response to that decision—and you are going to want to see them.

The records confirm some of our worst fears about the lack of privacy protections for Erie County residents. It turns out that 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.

Some shocking things these records reveal:

  • 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.

These records include purchase orders, a letter from the stingrays’ manufacturer, a confidentiality agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and the FBI, a procedural manual, and summary reports of times in which the device was used.

The NYCLU wants you to see what Erie County tried so hard to keep hidden, so we’re serving it up on a silver platter. Click here to view the records and further info.

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