NYPD Sued After Refusing to Reveal Its Stingray Surveillance Budget

Privacy advocates are suing the secretive police department to find out how much it’s spending on cellphone surveillance devices.
May 21, 2016, 5:00pm
Image: Flickr/Adrian Owen

The New York Police Department is still refusing to release basic information about quasi-secret cellphone mass-surveillance devices colloquially known as Stingrays, according to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed Thursday by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

In February, the NYCLU obtained documents showing that the infamously opaque police department had deployed Stingrays over 1,000 times since 2008 without having any written policy whatsoever governing their use. Like other departments, the NYPD doesn't get a search warrant to use the devices, relying instead on "pen register" orders that don't require cops to show probable cause of a crime.

But not included was information on the cost and type of Stingrays, the brand name for a class of device called cell-site simulators, which emulate cellphone towers to track nearby phones but can also be configured to record call logs and intercept text messages en-masse. Earlier this week, another FOIA request from the NYCLU revealed that police in Rochester, New York spent more than $200,000 on a Stingray device that it uses to track suspected gang members.

Now the NYCLU is suing to get that contract information from the NYPD, which has since been revealed by many other police departments.

"The NYPD must come clean about what models of Stingrays it owns and how it acquires them," NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose said in a press statement emailed to Motherboard. "This is military grade technology with the potential to implicate the privacy of countless innocent New Yorkers. There's no good reason why this basic information—like how much it spends on what models of Stingrays—is not in the public domain."

The resistance is no surprise to anyone familiar with the NYPD's track record on public records requests. The department is widely known among requesters as a FOIA black hole. It frequently likens itself to a military agency, going as far as creating its own fake classification system to fight back public records requests.

Stingray-related FOIAing has been made even tougher by the fact that Stingrays are obscured by nondisclosure agreements departments are forced to sign by the parent company that manufactures Stingrays, Harris Corporation. The agreements have led the FBI (which acts as a liaison to Harris) to explicitly order local prosecutors to drop criminal cases rather than reveal the devices in court.