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Police request equipment upgrades to collect phone data

By Jill Terreri

The release of a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision dictating that police need a warrant in order to search a cell phone coincides with a request by the Buffalo Police Department to purchase equipment that would transfer all data from a cell phone so it could be examined by detectives. 

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said the department's possession of the data-transfer device does not change the fact that a warrant is necessary to search someone's phone. 

"As the Supreme Court says, you need a warrant," Derenda said. "But we've never gone through anyone's cell phone without their permission, just like permission to search, or need be, we'll get a search warrant. So really, procedures aren't going to change." 

Common Council members have been concerned about whether all officers know that citizens do not need to turn over their phone if an officer does not have a warrant, based on anecdotes from their constituents and from published reports. At least one officer, John A. Cirulli, was reported to have demanded that a bystander turn over their cell phone, in an incident in which he was caught on video hitting a suspect in handcuffs. He resigned. 

The Police Department is asking the Common Council permission to purchase "universal forensic extraction devices" from Cellebrite

The device, when hardwired into a cell phone, allows detectives to extract GPS data, as well as text messages, phone call data, pictures and videos. The device will help detectives determine links between suspects and victims or multiple suspects, and could "help break alibis or exonerate innocent parties," according to the Police Department. The equipment is already used in the department. Detectives are seeking an upgrade. 

"It's like taking your phone and plugging it in and seeing who you called," Derenda said. "You have a homicide victim, you have a telephone. You want to look, who this person last called, time, whatever messages are on there. That will retrieve all that information for you."

The device does not track phones nearby, Derenda said. 

In an unrelated matter, The New York Civil Liberties Union is seeking information from the Erie County Sheriff's Department about the department's cell phone tracking activities, which utilizes different technology than what the Police Department is seeking. 

Derenda said he was not surprised by the court's decision.

"You should have a right to privacy," he said. 

Information submitted to the Council does not indicate how many devices the department is purchasing or how much they will cost. 

The Council will consider the Police Department request during a Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday. 

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