For the past five years, Erie County Sheriff’s officers have been using controversial cell phone spying technology largely without any judicial oversight or even internal procedures to protect citizens’ privacy. Last May, Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard told the county legislature’s Public Safety Committee that officers’ use of StingRay and KingFish machines was conducted under “judicial review” for all criminal matters. However, documents released after a New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office seem to show that the office did not develop internal procedures for the machines’ use until after local media began airing stories about the program. Further, officers appear to have only obtained a court order to use the StingRay once since obtaining it in 2010, and that single time was this past October – again, after the program became public.
The records of the use of cellular tracking technology and the lack of oversight revealed is troubling for a program that the Sheriff’s Office made every attempt to conceal the details and even the existence of. Reports show five times that officers used the StingRay without asserting any legal authority and without reporting the subject or the purpose of their surveillance. Other reports reveal instances where officers did not even identify who was using the device, rendering impossible any accountability for abuse of the technology that may have occurred. Others reveal seemingly physically impossible uses of the device dozens of miles from one another within a half-hour timeframe.
For all the opacity that Howard insists is necessary to prevent the “bad guys” from wising up to the sheriffs’ tactics, officers only reported four instances in the past five years when using the device resulted in bringing a person into custody.
In all, the documents appear to confirm exactly what civil libertarians might fear: an unaccountable, poorly documented program of high-tech surveillance that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office attempted to conceal from the public’s awareness to the point of misleading local elected officials about its details.