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NYCLU calls out NYPD for Stingray use

Stephon Johnson | 2/19/2016, 3:06 p.m.
Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union announced that the New York Police Department has spied on individuals’ cellphones ...
Iphone, smartphone Pixabay

Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union announced that the New York Police Department has spied on individuals’ cellphones 1,016 times between 2008 and May of 2015 without a written policy. The police also only obtained lower-level court orders and not warrants.

The findings are the result of a response to a NYCLU Freedom of Information Law request and the first time the NYPD’s use of Stingrays has been made available to the public.

“If carrying a cellphone means being exposed to military-grade surveillance equipment, then the privacy of nearly all New Yorkers is at risk,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, in a statement. “Considering the NYPD’s troubling history of surveilling innocent people, it must at the very least establish strict privacy policies and obtain warrants prior to using intrusive equipment like Stingrays that can track people’s cellphones.”

Stingrays are surveillance devices authorities use to spy on cellphones in whatever neighborhood they’re in by mimicking a cell tower. This lets the police pinpoint a person’s location and possibly collect the numbers of everyone that person has textED and called. Even when the police target a specific phone with a Stingray, the information of nearby cellphones could be picked up by the device as well. This doesn’t involve any communications with phone companies. According to the NYCLU, the NYPD conducts its surveillance alone.

This issue isn’t only relegated to the city. Last year, the NYCLU revealed records that showed that authorities in Erie County used Stingrays 47 times in a four-year span and only obtained a pen register order for only one of them. This contradicted the statement that Erie County’s sheriff’s office gave a local reporter. The NYCLU also revealed that New York State Police spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Stingrays and related equipment. Because of this, the NYCLU has distributed a legal memorandum to certain law enforcement agencies stating that this kind of eavesdropping requires a warrant.

“New Yorkers have very real concerns about the NYPD’s adoption of intrusive surveillance technology,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose in a statement. “The NYPD should at minimum obtain warrants before using Stingrays to protect the privacy of innocent people.”