Rochester Police Department Spent Hundreds of Thousands on Stingray Device

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
May 18, 2016 11:00 am

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The Rochester Police Department has spent at least $200,000 since 2011 to acquire and maintain a Stingray and related equipment. Stingrays are surveillance devices that spy on cell phones nearby and can be used to track location. The information comes from documents released by the department in response to a New York Civil Liberties Union FOIL request sent in June of last year. The documents also show that the devices were purchased, in part with money from state grants, to gather intelligence on gang members.

“We appreciate the Rochester Police Department working with us to make sure this critical information about the acquisition and use of Stingrays is made public,” said NYCLU Genesee Valley Chapter Director, KaeLyn Rich. “But we have serious concerns about the department spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on these powerful and invasive devices.”

Stingrays allow authorities to spy on cell phones in the area by mimicking a cell tower, and allow the police to pinpoint a person’s location. Stingrays also sweep up information from nearby bystander cell phones even when used to target specific phones.

The department spent over $200,000 to purchase and maintain a Stingray device called a KingFish and related equipment. Police can find and track a person on the move using a KingFish, which has been utilized 13 times between January 2012 and May 2015. The department purchased the devices with the help of over $150,000 in state grants. The hefty price tag does not include the thousands of dollars the department may have to spend to keep its Stingray system updated and capable of tracking cell phones operating with the latest technology.

Even though Stingrays are military grade technology often touted as a counter terrorism tool, grant documents show that the Rochester Police Department obtained the Stingray technology to perform everyday law enforcement activity, such as keeping track of people they thought might be in gangs.

In March, a state appellate court in Maryland ruled that law enforcement must obtain a warrant in order to use Stingray technology. The Rochester Police Department gets warrants some of the time it uses the technology. It also has policies in place guiding its use of Stingrays.

Last year, the NYCLU released records showing the Erie County Sheriff’s Office had used Stingrays 47 times, all without getting a warrant and only once showing that it had obtained a lower level court order called a pen register. In February, the NYCLU revealed that the NYPD has used Stingrays more than 1,000 times using only pen register orders.

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