The New York Police Department has secretly tracked cell phones more than 1,000 times between 2008 and 2015, documents obtained by the New York Civil Liberties Union show.
The documents, released only after an inquiry under the state's Freedom Of Information Law, or FOIL, reveal for the first time the NYPD owns and uses Stingrays. Stingrays, also known as cell-site simulators, are devices that mimic cell phone towers, then collect information from phones that attempt to connect to them.
That information allows police to pinpoint a person's location. In some instances, police can also record information from the phone, including numbers it has called and texted, and the contents of those communications.
“If carrying a cell phone means being exposed to military grade surveillance equipment, then the privacy of nearly all New Yorkers is at risk,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said in a statement. “Considering the NYPD’s troubling history of surveilling innocent people, it must at the very least establish strict privacy policies and obtain warrants prior to using intrusive equipment like Stingrays that can track people’s cell phones.”
Troublingly, the devices were employed without warrants, and often collect information from bystanders' phones, even if they're not involved in any active investigation.
Stingrays were originally used by intelligence agencies like the CIA after telecommunications companies in foreign countries refused to comply with their surveillance requests, per a Scientific American report from June 2015. The U.S. Military then bought into the technology, and various domestic agencies -- including the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security -- began using them in the U.S.
They've since been purchased and deployed by a wide range of state and local law enforcement, though the ACLU reports these agencies go to great lengths to purchase and use them in secrecy.