Cell Phone Security: Is the NYPD Spying on You?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on February 17, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reported last week that the New York Police Department (NYPD) is not seeking proper warrants when using stingray spying devices to generally track cell phones. Instead, police are requesting "pen register orders" which are easier to obtain than warrants and are normally used to collect data on one specific cell phone, according to The Hacker News.

The NYPD admits its use of stingrays -- cell phone surveillance devices that work by imitating cell phone towers -- without seeking the proper court warrants. And this has happened more than 1000 times since 2008. Let's look at what this means and why we, the people, should be wary.

What's a StingRay?

Stingrays are small cell phone surveillance devices that force all nearby phones to connect to them and reveal the owners' locations. A stingray can be used to track and collect information on multiple parties at once, which seems efficient for law enforcement. So why is this a problem for the people, and why should you be worried when you hear such reports?

Your Constitutional Rights

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution provides, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

As you can see, this amendment guarantees that searches, seizures, and arrests are all based on specific information. A request for a warrant must not only be sworn to sworn to by the person seeking to search but it must also describe with some specificity "the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Insufficiently Specific

Based on a reading of the Fourth Amendment, use of the stingrays for general cell phone spying on an unspecified number of people for unspecified matters is a gross constitutional violation. By admitting the repeated use of stingrays to spy on groups of people for unspecified matters, the police are saying that they have failed to respect the right of the people to be secure in their effects (their phones) from unreasonable search and seizure.

"If carrying a cell phone means being exposed to military-grade surveillance equipment, then the privacy of nearly all New Yorkers is at risk," NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman says.

The FBI and other federal authorities must obtain a proper court warrant before deploying tracking devices like the stingray. Yet in response to the report by the NYCLU, the NYPD said it used the surveillance technology in emergency situations.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard