Civil liberties advocates want sheriff to disclose use of cellphone surveillance devices

The New York Civil Liberties Union argued Thursday for the release of information about a sheriff's office's use of surveillance technology that allows it to intercept cellphone information.

The civil rights group said the public should know what, if any, privacy protections the Erie County Sheriff's Office has adopted surrounding its use of Stingray and similar devices that mimic cell towers to capture data.

"This is about the public's right to know about Stingrays, which is highly invasive equipment that is being used by law enforcement all across the country," Mariko Hirose, an attorney for the group, said following a hearing in Erie County Court.

The NYCLU took legal action after the sheriff's office denied part of the group's request for information under the Freedom of Information law. Sheriff's attorney Andrea Shillaci said disclosing the information would give away confidential law enforcement investigative techniques.

"The issue of the capabilities of the equipment is of paramount importance, not just to the local law enforcement, but to the FBI and to other national agencies," Shillaci said.

Judge Patrick NeMoyer did not immediately rule.

The use of Stingray devices has raised privacy concerns in several states and in Congress. In December, a U.S. Senate committee sent a letter to the departments of Justice and Homeland Security seeking answers about their use by federal law enforcement.

The suitcase-sized devices trick all cellphones in an area into electronically identifying themselves and transmitting data to police. Because of the secrecy surrounding their use, it's not clear what information the devices could capture, such as the contents of phone conversations and text messages and how often they are used.

"Stingrays are not highly secret military equipment as the sheriff would have this court believe," the NYCLU wrote in its legal brief. "They are tools used by many local civilian agencies in everyday investigations against American citizens."

Shillaci said the issue was a matter of "balancing the public's right to know with the effectiveness of law enforcement."

"The equipment that is in use is ... used on a local, national and international level," she said, "so to the extent that it is effective in those arenas, there is value in limiting the information that is available about it to the general public."