The New York Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday filed a Freedom of Information Law request seeking information about how the Erie County Sheriff’s Office has been using cellphone tracking devices to monitor users.
Sheriff Timothy B. Howard has acknowledged that specifically trained deputies have been using the mobile devices known as Stingrays since 2008. However, Howard told county lawmakers at a committee hearing in May that it was up to the courts and not legislators to provide oversight on how the devices are used.
Tuesday, John A. Curr III, director of the NYCLU’s Western Regional Office, said it is time for the Sheriff’s Office to come clean about its use of the devices.
“This is advanced surveillance technology that can sweep up very private information, including information on innocent people,” Curr said. “We have to know the scope of what’s taking place and, within the context of the comments that have been reported and attributed to the sheriff, we’ve got some troubling questions we’d like answered.”
At a meeting of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee last month, Howard said the device is used only for tracking a person’s movements, not for snooping into the content of phone communications. In addition, he said, use of the device in criminal investigations is always part of a judicial review.
Howard declined to say much more to lawmakers about the surveillance equipment, citing concerns that such information would be useful only to criminals seeking to circumvent the devices.
In a statement from the NYCLU’s central office in New York City, staff attorney Mariko Hirose said it is questionable whether Stingrays can ever be used legally and without violating citizens’ basic privacy rights.
“Erie County residents have a right to know how law enforcement is tracking them, and the Sheriff’s Office must be held accountable if it is collecting information on law-abiding people,” Hirose said.
Under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, the Sheriff’s Office must respond to the organization’s request, even if it is merely to deny it. A spokesman Tuesday said only that the office has received the NYCLU request and will review it before deciding how to respond.
“If they’re going to deny it, they need to cite the applicable provisions of the law in which they cite exclusions, as well as who the appealing authority is,” Curr said.
“We have gone to court with the county in the past to effect disclosure under the state’s (Freedom of Information) law, and we have not lost,” he added.
Curr said the NYCLU also requested the same information from the State Police, which also reportedly uses the Stingray devices.