Civil libertarians are hailing a victory of sorts in their determined bid to demystify the use of a secretive surveillance tool known as the StingRay, as a law enforcement official, upon orders by a local judge, must give up records about its procurement and use. Those of you who are regular readers of these pages will be familiar with the device, which is portable and simulates a cell-tower in scooping up information about cell phones in supposedly secure interior locations. You’ve been reading about the ongoing battle among the judiciary, citizenry, and journalists to nail down information about the technology and its uses.
The 24-page ruling last week revolves around the Erie County (New York) Sheriff’s department, which must produce heretofore secret documents detailing its purchase and employment of the StingRays. The maker of the devices, the Harris Corporation, has strenuously guarded information about them, going so far as having buyers sign confidentiality agreements not to disclose facts about the technology.
StingRay use by law enforcement, for a long time shrouded in secrecy, has been a thorn in the side of privacy advocates, and a cause for concern among judges when it was revealed in circumstances in Tacoma, Wash. ,Sarasota FL and Baltimore, MD, that police where not forthcoming with judges when applying for surveillance warrants.
We know now that the devices can not only be used to determine a phone’s location, but they can also intercept calls and text messages from unsuspecting, innocent cell phone users of nearby phones – not just the target phone. It is also established that the StingRay is permitted for use by local law enforcement under auspices from the FBI, which has fiercely invoked secrecy clauses regarding their use and makes prohibitions of disclosure about the technology a condition for their use by local police. The Erie county ruling may stand this practice on its ear and open the floodgates for information to flow about them.
“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,” said New York Civil Liberties Union staff lawyer Mariko Hirose. Hirose added,
“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.”
Cops in the above named jurisdiction and others have systematically lied in court filings on the spy devices, but Harris Corp. and the FBI have successfully stonewalled information about procurement and use. ’’We do not comment on solutions we may or may not provide to classified law enforcement agencies,” according to Jim Burke, a spokesman for the Harris Corp.
The New York law suit has its origins in a June 2014 public records request filed by the NYCLU against the Erie County Sheriff’s Office relating to the StingRays. In it, they sought to determine the method of purchase and use of the devices, as well as, “records reflecting the number of investigations in which cell site simulators were used by the SO… and the number of those investigations that have resulted in prosecutions.” The next month, that request was met by blanket denials but they eventually reneged and released some extraneous information and asking the NYCLU to drop its suit-which it thankfully refused to do.
In the ruling in question, the Erie County judge, Patrick Ne Moyer, harshly rebuked the Sheriff’s Office and using strong language said that the information to be disclosed was and is of compelling interest to, and of undeniable impact upon, the taxpaying public.
It is noteworthy that the secret use of this device and the complicit clandestine behavior of the FBI and Justice Department falls entirely within the timeframe of the Obama presidency, who once again trashes the boast of the “most transparent government in history” during his watch.
In fact, more prosecutions of whistleblowers, more attacks on privacy have occurred in the last six years than in all other administrations combined. It is hoped that this judge’s ruling will help stem the tide of unwarranted, unauthorized government intrusion in our everyday lives, and give the Department of Justice pause in its attack on privacy.