A New York State judge found that Stingray-related documents held by the Erie County Sheriff’s Office must be disclosed under New York’s open records laws. See Matter of New York Civil Liberties Union v. Erie County Sheriff’s Office, No. 2014/000206 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Erie Cnty. Mar. 17, 2015).
Originally developed for military use, the Stingray (also referred to as an IMSI catcher) is an electronic surveillance device used by law enforcement to simulate cell sites. By simulating a cell phone tower, the Stingray allows law enforcement to target and locate cell phones. Besides displaying information about the targeted cell phone, however, information about cell phones being used nearby also is collected.
The press and civil rights groups have been seeking information about the Stingray given that its use implicates privacy and constitutional issues—not just for the target of an investigation, but also for those members of the public who are on the same cellular network as the target. Law enforcement and the Stingray’s manufacturer have engaged in an unprecedented effort to protect the device’s secrecy. The Sheriff’s Office resisted the open records request on various grounds, including that it sought information that would interfere with law enforcement investigations, identify a confidential source or disclose confidential information relating to a criminal investigation, and reveal non-routine criminal investigative techniques or procedures.
Protecting the Stingray’s confidentiality is apparently so vital that the nondisclosure agreement between the FBI and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office required the Sheriff’s Office to seek dismissal of a criminal prosecution in lieu of making any case-related revelations concerning the Stingray’s use.
“If that is not an instruction that affects the public, nothing is,” noted Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer in ordering that Stingray-related information be disclosed under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. See N.Y. Pub. Off. art. 6.
A copy of the decision and judgment in Matter of New York Civil Liberties Union v. Erie County Sheriff’s Office requiring the disclosure of Stingray information is available here.