The NYPD has been spying on phones since 2008

nypd cruiser
Antonio Gravante/123rf
The New York Police Department is spying on cell phones with military-grade equipment called “stingrays” — and has done so more than 1,000 times since 2008, according to a new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Updated on 02/11/2016 by Julian Chokkattu: Added a statement from the NYPD.

“Many agencies continue to shroud their purchase and use of stingrays in secrecy.” — ACLU

Stingrays can track location, collect the phone numbers you have been texting and calling, and mimic cell towers, and the civil-rights group claims the technology can also intercept the content of those communications. The NYCLU also asserts that stingrays can grab information from bystander cell phones when law enforcement targets a specific one. The equipment doesn’t require the involvement of carriers, and the NYPD confirmed that it has not had any correspondence with any network carrier.

The NYPD used stingrays 1,016 times between May 2008 and May 2015, and rather than getting warrants for these actions, stingray use has largely been approved by “pen register orders,” a lower-level court order that’s not as protective as a warrant, according to the NYCLU. To get one of these orders, the NYPD only needs to establish that the use of the information will be “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.” This information comes from a Freedom of Information Law request made by the NYCLU in 2015.

The NYPD told Digital Trends that it uses the technology only after establishing probable cause, consulting with a district attorney, and applying for a court order. The NYPD did confirm that it “may use” stingrays in emergency situations, such as if someone’s life is in risk, while it seeks judicial approval.

“The NYCLU [maintained] that the privacy of New Yorkers is at risk. It is not. What is at risk is the safety of New Yorkers, without the limited use of this technology to locate dangerous fugitives,” said J. Peter Donald, Director of Communications for the NYPD. “The NYPD does not capture the contents of communications, as the NYCLU stated. Furthermore, the NYPD does not and never has swept up information from cell phones nearby. Perhaps the NYCLU should fact check their press release before issuing it.”

While it depends on the model used, stingrays — the technical term is IMSI-catchers, for International Mobile Subscriber Identity — can indeed “record voice and message data as they travel through the networks,” according to various privacy groups.

The NYCLU has yet to respond to Digital Trends, but we will update this post when they do.

While the Department of Justice has been allowing the use of stingrays with pen register orders, last year it announced that it was abandoning that policy, except for emergency situations.

“As a matter of policy, law-enforcement agencies must now obtain a search warrant supported by probable cause and issued pursuant to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure,” according to the Department of Justice’s policy guidance report.

It’s not all surprising, as the NYCLU released records last year showing the Erie County Sheriff’s office using Stingrays without “judicial review,” contradicting statements made by the sheriff. New York State Police spent upwards of $197,000 taxpayer dollars for this equipment, the NYCLU also found last year.

In December of 2015, the FBI admitted using stingrays to catch suspects, and the American Civil Liberties Union found 59 agencies in 23 states and the District of Columbia that own the devices.

“Because many agencies continue to shroud their purchase and use of stingrays in secrecy, this map dramatically under-represents the actual use of stingrays by law enforcement agencies nationwide,” the ACLU’s website notes.

In fact, the use of stingrays by law-enforcement agencies extends outside of the U.S. to cities such as London, SkyNews found last year.

While the NYPD has been suspected of using this technology before, the NYCLU points out that this report is the first time the extent of stingray use by the NYPD has been made public.

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