Tech by VICE

Police Can't Hide Key Docs on Cell Phone Trackers, Court Rules

The decision is seen as "a win" for privacy activists and the American public.

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
Mar 17 2015, 10:13pm

​Image: Ashwin Kumar/Flickr

A local judge in New York state has just given privacy advocates a big win in their fight for more transparency surrounding the controversial "StingRay" cell phone tracking device, ordering the police to release a series of key documents governing their use on Tuesday.

StingRays are basically fake cell towers that trick cell phones into connecting to them, giving police departments the ability to snoop information from the connected devices and track them. They have been ​extremely controversial over the last few years because police departments, as well as the FBI, have ​refused to disclose almost any information about them.

That's why Tuesday's decision is "an important decision and a good victory," according to Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization.

The ruling is "an important decision and a good victory."

In particular, Judge Patrick NeMoyer, of the Supreme Court of Buffalo, New York, ordered the Erie County Sheriff's Office to publish a letter between the police and the FBI that essentially acts as a non-disclosure agreement, requiring police departments to promise to the feds that they will not to disclose any information about their use of StingRays as an "apparent precondition" to acquiring these devices.

The existence of this kind of letter—essentially a gag order—has been reported before, but this is the first time a judge has ordered its full release, according to Nate Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the organization that's been fighting against the Erie County Sheriff's Office in this particular case.

Moreover, the ​ruling also reveals that the agreement instructs cops to conceal from the public "the existence, technological capabilities, or uses" of StingRays.

This, according to the ruling, includes dismissing criminal cases if prosecuting them could risk revealing details about StingRay technology.

The existence of this clause, Fakhoury told Motherboard, "is just insane."

The judge ordered this document to be released as publishing it "would not thwart or prejudice any particular ongoing law enforcement investigation or pending prosecution" nor would it would violate export controls. On the contrary, the judge argued, taking the side of privacy activists, that releasing this and other documents is in public interest.

"The information sought in this lawsuit is necessary for the public to evaluate whether law enforcement is following the law and whether it is making responsible use of tax dollars," Wessler, of the ACLU, told Motherboard.

"The information sought in this lawsuit is necessary for the public to evaluate whether law enforcement is following the law."

It's unclear whether the Erie County Sheriff's Office will appeal this decision, although Fakhoury said that's very likely. Motherboard could not reach the Sheriff's office for comment before publication and the FBI did not answer Motherboard's request for comment.

In any case, this is by no means the end of the fight for transparency regarding the use of StingRays, but it's an important win for privacy advocates, and, perhaps, the American public.

"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," New York Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Mariko Hirose, who litigated this case, said in a ​statement. "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."