NYPD Pressed to Open Ledgers on StingRays

A cartoon by the Electronic Freedom Foundation on StingRay technology, also known as cell-site simulator surveillance.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A judge voiced support Wednesday for giving New Yorkers an accounting of how the city has spent tax dollars on StingRay surveillance technology, which police have deployed more than 1,000 times without a warrant.

“Sunshine is the best medicine for our society,” Judge Shlomo Hagler said Wednesday, paraphrasing the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

Though not brought to light until a 2013 court case, StingRays have been a secret tool for law enforcement for roughly two decades. The devices mimic a service provider’s cell tower to locate cellphones, forcing nearby phones to “ping” the simulator.

As the constitutional battle over StingRays gathers steam, civil liberties groups have been using New York’s Freedom of Information Law to learn more about their use and cost.

“This is about the council members and the public having very basic information about how much the NYPD has been spending and what tools,” Mariko Hirose, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, argued Wednesday before the Manhattan County Supreme Court.

This morning’s fight to access purchase orders, contracts and agreements comes after a judge ordered the NYPD to reveal how it used StingRay technology between 2008 and May 2015. The NYCLU is also responsible for legislation called the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, which was introduced to the City Council on March 1.

The POST Act, as it is known for short, would force the NYPD to issue an impact and use policy for every surveillance technology that it uses, disclosing the capabilities, guidelines and data-security measures for each.

New York City Law Department attorney Neil Giovanatti pushed Wednesday to afford the police some privacy.

“Nobody knows what devices the NYPD actually has,” he said.

Giovanatti noted that different models of StingRays have different capabilities. Some are equipped only to track location, while others can read text messages.

Judge Hagler was dubious that the NYPD would have anything but the top models.

“NYPD has the biggest budget for law enforcement than any city in the world,” Hagler noted.

The NYCLU has already won detailed information on how much other law-enforcement agencies have been spending on the technology.

In 2014, the NYCLU learned that the Buffalo-based Erie County Sheriff’s Office spent more than $350,000 to buy and maintain two StingRay systems. New York State Police have spent at least $641,504 on StingRays in 2012 and 2013, and Rochester police spent at least 200,600 since 2011 on the technology, the group also uncovered.

Judge Hagler said that he would be “inclined” to order New York City to disclose how much money the NYPD has spent, but he appeared hesitant to go as far as the Buffalo court, which also ordered production of specific contracts, companies and models.

New York City argues that releasing this information could hurt the NYPD’s ability to combat crime and terrorism, and Hagler noted that the courtroom is a few blocks away from the former World Trade Center.

Hirose, the NYCLU lawyer, countered that the city has not produced any evidence that transparency would put anyone at risk.

“Your Honor says that you haven’t seen anything to show [a harm to public safety], and that is their burden,” she said.

Hagler will probe the city’s claims at a closed-door hearing in his third-floor chambers on March 22, where he will inspect the records the NYCLU wants.

Attorneys from both parties will make their arguments privately at that time, without the press and public present, before the judge issues his final ruling.