“Stingray” surveillance device watchdogs won a major victory on Tuesday when a New York court ordered the Erie County Sheriff's Office to turn over documents about its purchase and use of the surveillance devices to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU).
The win comes off an initial Freedom of Information request the NYCLU made in June. This request asked for information about the office's purchase of the stingrays, including invoices and purchase orders, as well as policies and guidelines the office operates under for its use of the cell site simulators, according to the court's ruling.
The civil liberties group also asked for any communications from stingray manufacturer Harris Corporation that instructed the office to keep its device activities confidential.
The office denied the information request in July. NYCLU followed up with a letter of appeal, and after receiving no response, filed a lawsuit against the office.
The NYCLU cited media as evidence that the office's refusal to turn over documents was unwarranted.
“The Sheriff's Office has spent more than $350,000 since 2008 on this surveillance equipment – it is ridiculous for them to suggest they have no paperwork or records on the matter,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose in a blog post. “The blanket denial of our entire request, without any explanation, only underscores their wholesale disregard for the right to privacy.”
Now, nearly four months later, the court has mandated the office to turn over multiple documents, including unredacted purchase orders and a non-disclosure agreement.
“Given that this case at its outset concerned the complete denial of the multi-pronged FOIL request, the court sees no plausible alternative to denominating petitioner the party that has ‘substantially prevailed' in the proceeding,” the court wrote. “The court further sees no alternative but to conclude that ‘the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access' to the material sought by petitioner and either since voluntarily disclosed or now ordered to be turned over to them.”
Stingray use and secrecy surrounding the device has come under major scrutiny this year, as civil liberty organizations, including the ACLU, continue to press law enforcement for details on their programs.