Until last week, the extent to which the New York Police Department uses a technology known as Stingray to collect data from cellphones wasn’t known. It was revealed, following a FOIL request by the New York Civil Liberties Union recently made public, that police used this device more than 1,000 times between 2008 and early 2015.
But for those concerned about privacy issues surrounding cellphone surveillance, the advice of experts is that there are a few ways to thwart the NYPD’s spyware.
The best option is to have a phone with a removable battery, because even with the phone turned off, the device can be read. With the battery out, police cannot track the phone. But if you have an iPhone, you’re not screwed, says Anthony Miller, of Spy Shops NYC on 34th Street.
“We sell portable Faraday enclosures called Starfish bags,” says Miller of a copper-lined pouch that blocks radio signals to work as a shielding system against surveillance. “They cut complete signal from the phone. It comes in different sizes. You can get them for iPads, iPhones, and other devices, and it’s one way of avoiding surveillance.”
Another New York City spy store owner says those worried about the implications of the NYPD’s use of such technology shouldn’t be. Bob Leonard, the owner of the Spy Store on West 4th Street, says police are “zoning in on the bad guys” and couldn’t care less about information intercepted from bystanders.
“Fuhgettaboutit,” says Leonard, who is a retired NYPD officer. “A lot of people are selling paranoia. Everybody wants protection, but what they don’t understand is that your information can be compromised no matter what you do.”
The problem comes when the phone is in use. If you turn it on, the police can collect metadata, and perhaps more. For that, Leonard has a solution. But it’s expensive. “We also sell phones that can’t be tapped. They’re high-end phones and they’re expensive — $7,000 for a pair of them.”
The bigger issue is the police collecting our data to begin with, says Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that fights to keep the government out of Americans’ communications. “To me, you start with the proposition that there is something pretty wrong in our self-governing country when we don’t have any idea about the tools law enforcement is using that may implicate our rights.”
The way a Stingray works is by acting as a cell tower, intercepting signals from all devices nearby. It can tell where a cellphone is located and sometimes gather the phone numbers a citizen has been calling or texting. The NYCLU says the NYPD has been using Stingrays without a written policy and without securing warrants. It’s the first time the extent of this police spying has been made public.
“If carrying a cellphone means being exposed to military-grade surveillance equipment, then the privacy of nearly all New Yorkers is at risk,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. “Considering the NYPD’s troubling history of surveilling innocent people, it must at the very least establish strict privacy policies and obtain warrants prior to using intrusive equipment like Stingrays that can track people’s cellphones.”
In response, the NYPD issued a statement justifying its use of Stingrays, saying surveillance technology is used after establishing probable cause, consulting with a district attorney, and applying for a court order. “In rare instances, the NYPD may use this technology in emergency situations while we seek judicial approval. This would be in instances where the life or safety of someone is at risk,” the statement reads.
As unsettling as the deployment of spying devices by law enforcement might be to some people, it’s not news to others.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Steve Rambam, a private investigative expert. “It’s been known for years. I gave a talk in 2012 about the NYPD using Stingrays, speaking in front of 2,500 people at a conference in Manhattan.”
He adds that nobody should expect privacy in public spaces, period, let alone with cellphones.
“Does the NYPD gather massive and generally unknown amounts of data on anyone in New York? Yes. Is it wrong for them to do so? Absolutely not,” says Rambam. “The fact of the matter is if you’re walking down the street and I’m a law enforcement agency with a detective, I can have that detective follow you without a warrant. I’m legally permitted to do that — physically and electronically.”