According to a judicial ruling issued Tuesday, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) in Northwestern New York state must turn over a number of documents concerning its purchase and use of stingrays. The 24-page order comes as the result of a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and marks a rare victory in favor of transparency of "cell-site simulators," which are often shrouded in secrecy.
The devices can not only be used to determine a phone’s location, but they can also intercept calls and text messages. During the act of locating a phone, stingrays also sweep up information about nearby phones—not just the target phone. Earlier this year, Ars reported on how theFBI is actively trying to "prevent disclosure" of how these devices are used in local jurisdictions across America.
"The court today has confirmed that law enforcement cannot hide behind a shroud of secrecy while it is invading the privacy of those it has sworn to protect and serve," Mariko Hirose, a NYCLU Staff Attorney, said in a statement. "The public has a right to know how, when and why this technology is being deployed, and they deserve to know what safeguards and privacy protections, if any, are in place to govern its use."
Liar, liar, pants on fireRelatively little is known about how, exactly, the stingrays are used by law enforcement agencies nationwide, although documents have surfaced showing how they have been purchased and used in some limited instances. In 2013, Ars reported on leaked documents showing the existence of a body-worn stingray. Five years ago, Kristin Paget famously demonstrated a homemade device built for just $1,500.
Worse still, cops have lied to courts about the use of such technology. The largest manufacturer of the devices, the Harris Corporation, has been tight-lipped about its hardware capabilities.
"We do not comment on solutions we may or may not provide to classified [Department of Defense] or law enforcement agencies," Jim Burke, a spokesman for the Harris Corporation, previously told Ars.
In February 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union published documents showing that local law enforcement in Florida has used stingrays thousands of times since 2007 for things as minor as a 911 hangup call.
“Of undeniable impact upon the taxpaying public”The New York lawsuit has its origins in a June 2014 public records request. The NYCLU asked the Erie County Sheriff’s Office for a number of stingray-related documents, including purchase orders, invoices, policies, and "records reflecting the number of investigations in which cell site simulators were used by the Sheriff's Office or in which cell site simulators owned by the Sheriff's Office were used, and the number of those investigations that have resulted in prosecutions."
The next month, that request was met with a blanket denial. Once the NYCLU sued in November 2014 for not fully complying with the request, the ECSO sent over some documents in an olive branch—asking the NYCLU to drop the suit, which it declined to do.