Police departments around the country are using a device known as a "stingray," which allows them to track suspects by their cell phone signals. Stingrays have become a cause for concern for many people, not only because police are apparently using them to track specific individuals without obtaining a warrant, but also because many departments seem to be going to great lengths to keep information away from the public. This reportedly includes dismissal of charges merely to avoid disclosing details about stingray use. Numerous lawsuits are either challenging stingray use or seeking information under state open records laws. A judge in New York ordered police to produce stingray records, rejecting their arguments for keeping them secret. In Texas, a bill is currently pending in the Legislature that would require a warrant for stingray use.
Stingrays allow police to intercept cell phone communications by mimicking a cell phone tower. The phone automatically sends identifying information to the stingray, just as it would do to any cell tower. The telecommunications companies that operate the cell tower network have vast stores of data regarding cell phone locations. Courts are split on the question of whether police must have a warrant to obtain this data from cell tower operators. With stingray technology, police can track a suspect in real time, while data obtained from cell towers only provides location data after the fact.
A lawsuit brought under New York's open records law has reportedly revealed a deal between the FBI and the Erie County Sheriff's Office in New York, in which the FBI told the sheriff's office to drop certain criminal cases rather than reveal stingray-related information. A New York judge described the deal in an order directing the sheriff's office to produce such records. N.Y. Civil Liberties Union v. Erie Co. Sheriff's Office, No. 2014/000206, judgment (N.Y. Sup. Ct., Erie Co., Mar. 17, 2015).