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.

News

Alphabet’s health watch monitors your heart health, is approved by the FDA

A health monitoring watch being developed by Alphabet, Google's parent company, has received clearance from the FDA as a medical device. This means that the device has been found to be safe and can legally be sold in the U.S.
Movies & TV

From premiere date to footage: Here's all we have on 'Game of Thrones' season 8

With the eighth and final season looming, Game of Thrones fever has officially become a pandemic. Our list of all the relevant news and rumors will help make the wait more bearable, if you don't mind spoilers.
Mobile

Biometric phone unlocks can’t be forced by feds, says U.S. judge

Fingerprint and face unlocks used to not be protected by the Fifth Amendment, but that may soon change. A judge in California has ruled biometric unlocking methods of all kinds are protected in the same way as passcodes.
Cars

China’s GAC Motor cruises into Detroit with all-electric Entranze concept

Chinese automaker GAC Motor brought its all-electric Entranze concept to the 2019 Detroit Auto Show. This is the third straight year that GAC has appeared in Detroit, and the company has established a design center in California.
Mobile

OpenTable points can now be used to whittle down cost of a hotel stay

Have some OpenTable Dining Points built up? Now those points can also be used to make your own hotel discounts. OpenTable is teaming up with Kayak to use points as discounts on participating hotels.
Mobile

Get $100 discount on the Razer Phone 2 for a limited time

The Razer Phone 2 is finally here, and it's got upgraded specs, that super-smooth 120Hz display, and an updated design. Here's absolutely everything you need to know about the Razer Phone 2.
Deals

REI slashes prices on Suunto, Garmin, and Fitbit Versa smartwatches

Though fitness trackers and smartwatches can get pretty pricey, REI is offering some sweet discounts on top brands. Right now, you can get a new smartwatch from Fitbit, Suunto, and Garmin for up to 35 percent off its normal price.
Social Media

Twitter suffers privacy scare as bug reveals tweets of protected accounts

If you set your Twitter account to private and you have an Android device, you'd better check your settings now. Twitter says it's just fixed a four-year-old bug that flipped the privacy switch to make the account public.
Wearables

Check out the four cool Swatch watches you can use for mobile payments

Swatch has announced its Swatchpay technology is now available in Switzerland, enabling mobile payments from your Swatch watch. It works in a similar way to Apple Pay and Google Pay. Here's everything about it.
Mobile

How to jailbreak your iPhone on iOS 12: A beginner’s guide

The latest jailbreaking tools for iOS 12 make freeing your iOS device easier than ever. This guide will teach you how to jailbreak your iPhone or iPad, and explain what jailbreaking will do for you.
Social Media

Spice up your Instagram videos by adding your top tunes to the soundtrack

Have you ever taken a beautiful video, only to have it ruined by some jerk in the background yelling curse words? Here's a list of apps you can use to add your own music to Instagram posts as well as your Story.
Home Theater

Dolby’s secret recording studio app may soon exit stealth mode

In secret testing since June, Dolby's stealth recording and social network app may soon be ready to make an appearance. Dolby 234 blends unique noise-canceling tech with Instagram-like audio filters.
Business

Google is buying mysterious smartwatch tech from The Fossil Group for $40 million

Google is about to step up its smartwatch game. The company has agreed to buy an unnamed smartwatch technology from The Fossil Group for a hefty $40 million. Considering the acquisition, it's clear Google is serious about smartwatches.
Mobile

Here’s how to take a screenshot on an iPad, step by step

The ability to capture screenshots may not be the iPad's most glamorous feature, but it's one of its most useful. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to take a screenshot on an iPad, whether it's an iPad Pro from 2018 or an older iPad model.