BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) - After prevailing in its lawsuit against the Erie County Sheriff's Office over the use of taxpayer-funded cell phone spying equipment, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is revealing details of how the equipment is used.
The cell phone surveillance equipment is called the Stingray, which costs $350,000. It allows the sheriff's office to track and record the location of a person through their cell phone.
The NYCLU says records from the sheriff's office shows it has been used at least 47 times between May 1, 2010 and October 3, 2014, including to assist other law enforcement agencies like the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
In those instances, documents show that the sheriff's office obtained a court order only once, even though the sheriff made statement to local media and the Erie County Legislature that each use of the device was subject to "judicial review." The court order that was obtained in October 2014 was not a warrant, but a lower level court order called a "pen register" order.
“These records confirm some of the very worst fears about local law enforcement’s use of this expensive and intrusive surveillance equipment,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “Not only did the Sheriff’s Office promise the FBI breathtaking secrecy to keep information about stingrays as hidden as possible, it implemented almost no privacy protections for the Erie County residents it is sworn to protect and serve.”
But the sheriff's office denies that, saying the NYCLU is misinterpreting the data.
"For us to be able to even track we need the cooperation of a cellular company and they require the proper legal process, whether it's a warrant, exigent circumstances court order, etc.," said Scott Patronik of the Erie County Sheriff's office.
The NYCLU says documents also show the sheriff's office has a confidentiality agreement with the FBI that allows it to maintain almost total secrecy over the records for this device, including that the FBI can request the sheriff's office dismiss criminal prosecutions rather than risk compromising the secrecy of how the Stingray is used.
“Stingrays are an advanced surveillance technology that can sweep up very private information, including information on innocent people,” said NYCLU Western Region Director John Curr III. “If the FBI can command the Sheriff’s Office to dismiss criminal cases to protect its secret stingrays, it is not clear how the $350,000 we are spending on stingray equipment is keeping the people of Buffalo safer.”
The NYCLU says the sheriff's office has had to dismiss one case. But the sheriff's office maintains it has never dismissed a criminal case as a result of an investigation using the Stingray.