FBI would rather prosecutors drop cases than disclose stingray details
New documents released by NYCLU shed light on Erie County’s use of spying tool.
By Cyrus Farivar
Apr 7 2015
Not only is the FBI actively attempting to stop the public from knowing about stingrays, it has also forced local law enforcement agencies to stay quiet even in court and during public hearings, too.
An FBI agreement, published for the first time in unredacted form on Tuesday, clearly demonstrates the full extent of the agency’s attempt to quash public disclosure of information about stingrays. The most egregious example of this is language showing that the FBI would rather have a criminal case be dropped to protect secrecy surrounding the stingray.
Relatively little is known about how, exactly, stingrays, known more generically as cell-site simulators, are used by law enforcement agencies nationwide, although new documents have recently been released showing how they have been purchased and used in some limited instances. Worse still, cops have lied to courts about their use. Not only can stingrays be used to determine location by spoofing a cell tower, they can also be used to intercept calls and text messages. Typically, police deploy them without first obtaining a search warrant.
Ars previously published a redacted version of this document in February 2015, which had been acquired by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in December 2014. The fact that these two near-identical documents exist from the same year (2012) provides even more evidence that this language is boilerplate and likely exists in other agreements with other law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The new document, which was released Tuesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in response to its March 2015 victory in a lawsuitfiled against the Erie County Sheriff’s Office (ECSO) in Northwestern New York, includes this paragraph:
In order to ensure that such wireless collection equipment/technology continues to be available for use by the law enforcement community, the equipment/technology and any information related to its functions, operation and use shall be protected from potential compromise by precluding disclosure of this information to the public in any manner including but not limited to: press releases, in court documents, during judicial hearings, or during other public forums or proceedings.
In the version of the document previously obtained in Minnesota, the rest of the sentence after the phrase “limited to” was entirely redacted.
Mariko Hirose, a NYCLU staff attorney, told Ars that she has never seen an agreement like this before.
“This seems very broad in scope and undermines public safety and the workings of the criminal justice system,” she said.
Your tax dollars at work
The FBI letter also explicitly confirms a practice that some local prosecutors have engaged in previously, which is to drop criminal charges rather than disclose exactly how a stingray is being used. Last year, prosecutors in Baltimore did just that during a robbery trial—there, Baltimore Police Detective John L. Haley cited a non-disclosure agreement, and he declined to describe in detail how he obtained the location of the suspect.
The newly revealed sections state: