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Tech by VICE

Rochester Police Used A $200,000 Stingray To Track Gang Members

Police have used the once-secret counterterrorism tools for pretty much everything except terrorism.

by Janus Rose
May 18 2016, 5:51pm

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Stingrays, the quasi-secret cellphone surveillance devices used by police and federal agents, and often defended as crucial in the counterterrorism fight, keep on popping up in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism or serious crime.

On Wednesday, the New York Civil Liberties Union posted documents showing that since 2011, police in Rochester, New York have spent at least $200,600 on a KingFish, a class of Stingray device (also called cell-site simulators) which allows cops to track thousands of phones and even intercept text messages by pretending to be a nearby cellphone tower. $172,588 of that amount was provided by state grants, and it doesn't include the costs of keeping the surveillance tool up-to-date so it will work on the latest mobile devices.

According to the documents, which come from a Freedom of Information request filed by the NYCLU, Rochester police have used the KingFish to conduct routine surveillance on suspected gang members—a far cry from the "emergency" situations originally used to justify the devices, such as terrorism and kidnapping.

"Even though Stingrays are military grade technology often touted as a counter terrorism tool, grant documents show that the Rochester Police Department obtained the Stingray technology to perform everyday law enforcement activity, such as keeping track of people they thought might be in gangs," the NYCLU wrote in a press statement.

Like many other departments, the Rochester police seem to have deployed the surveillance device without a warrant on several occasions. According to the documents, the department's policies for obtaining court approval before using tracking equipment like Stingrays has exceptions for "exigent circumstances." Those circumstances notably aren't limited to an "imminent threat to life or safety," and also include any "significant unanticipated enforcement or investigative opportunity that must be acted on quickly," the documents state.

Rochester police used the device 13 times between January 2012 and May 2015, and it is presumably still in use. Stingray brand devices are upgradable through their parent company, Harris Corporation, and in 2013, Harris tried to persuade the Rochester Police Department to upgrade the KingFish with its Hailstorm technology, which can spy on devices using newer 4G LTE connections, according to a document obtained by NYCLU.

It's not the first time cops have deployed Stingrays for everyday police work. Earlier this month, it was reported that police in Annapolis, MD used a Stingray to catch a thief who stole $50 worth of chicken wings. The FBI has been responsible for secretly giving Stingray devices to local police departments across the US, and has gone to incredible lengths to hide their existence, forcing departments to sign nondisclosure agreements and even instructing local prosecutors to drop cases rather than reveal the devices in court.