Local Police Agencies Have Devices to Spy on Cell Phones

BUFFALO, NY-- Before you make a call or type a text on your cell phone, think about who could be spying on you.

2 On Your Side has been reporting on increased cell phone snooping across the country. And, we are now learning some local law enforcement are getting your information.

Even when you have done nothing wrong.

There are quite a few similar devices also on the market.

Basically, the devices mimic a cell tower, forcing your phone to send it information: like your exact location, your phone's unique serial number. It also gets information about who you've called and who you've texted.

The information shows up on a computer connected to the device.

It's a mountain of data, the vast majority of it coming from completely innocent people.

For months... 2 On Your Side has been working with U-S-A Today... And our T-V and newspaper partners across the country: on a nationwide investigation into cell phone spying. Most police agencies in the US refused to even say if they own the devices. Those who use them, were tight-lipped, until recently.

The New York State Police admitted, through a Freedom of Information request, to owning "cellular telephone tracking equipment." The total cost: $197,000. We don't know the exact type of machine, or the manufacturer. That information was blacked out.

In a statement, State Police said that was "due to safety and security reasons." We wanted to ask why State Police use this device,but a spokesperson rejected our interview request.
In a statement, State Police said the cell phone tracking has been used "on a very limited basis and always with a court order OR under exigent circumstances." 2 On Your Side inquired as to what what specific safeguards are in place: to keep that data from being abused. The statement simply says, "All possible measures are taken to ensure all information is secure."

The Erie County Sheriff's Office has, for weeks, refused to say if it owns a Stingray or similar device. But 2 On Your Side has now confirmed: it has.

A source in county government says records show a 2009 purchase of a Stingray system. It came out of State Homeland Security grant funding, through the "Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention Program". So how much did it cost? Does the Sheriff's office still have the machine? How often has it been used? All questions nobody will answer. The Sheriff's office still won't even confirm it owns a Stingray.

2 On Your Side has appealed the Sheriff's Office denial of our Freedom of Information Request, to get information on Erie County's Stingray device.

Police sources say these devices are helpful, especially in emergency situations when lives are in danger.

But all the secrecy, and lack of transparency, may leave you wondering if your next call or text is as private as it should be.

2 On Your Side also checked with the Buffalo Police and the Niagara County Sheriff's Office. Both responded to our freedom of information requests, saying they do not own those spying devices.

What do you think about police using this type of device? Share your thoughts on twitter using: #cellphonespying, or post a comment on our WGRZ Facebook page.


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