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New York Bills would Require Judicial Order for the Use of Stingrays; Hinder Federal Program

ALBANY, N.Y. – (Jan. 8, 2016) – Three bills introduced in the New York general assembly would require a judicial order for the use of “stingrays” to track the location of phones and sweep up electronic communications. Passage of the bill would not only protect privacy in the Empire State, but would also hinder one aspect of the federal surveillance state.

Sen Michael Ranzenhofer (R-61) sponsors Senate Bill 4914 (SB4914). Asm. Sean Ryan (D-149) sponsors an identical companion bill in the House (A07655). Passage of these bills would help block the use of cell site simulators, known as “stingrays.” These devices essentially spoof cell phone towers, tricking any device within range into connecting to the stingray instead of the tower, allowing law enforcement to sweep up communications content, as well as locate and track the person in possession of a specific phone or other electronic device.

SB4914 and A07655 require law enforcement agencies to treat stingray devices the same as wiretaps and pen registers, requiring a judicial order based upon reasonable suspicion authorizing their use. Current law requires law enforcement agencies to follow very specific procedures when asking for authorization to use a wiretap or pen register. The law also directs judges to consider specific criteria designed to protect innocent people from surveillance before issuing orders authorizing their use. If this legislation passes, stingrays will be subject to the same laws.

A third bill filed by Ryan work together with SB4814 and A07655 to limit the use of stingrays. A08055 would amend current eavesdropping law to include stingrays.


The federal government funds the vast majority of state and local stingray programs, attaching one important condition. The feds require agencies acquiring the technology to sign non-disclosure agreements. This throws a giant shroud over the program, even preventing judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys from getting information about the use of stingrays in court. The feds actually instruct prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported last fall, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions on the stand during a trial, citing a federal non-disclosure agreement.

Defense attorney Joshua Insley asked Cabreja about the agreement.

“Does this document instruct you to withhold evidence from the state’s attorney and Circuit Court, even upon court order to produce?” he asked.

“Yes,” Cabreja said.

As put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”

The feds sell the technology in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts. With non-disclosure agreements in place, most police departments refuse to release any information on the use of stingrays. But information obtained from the Tacoma Police Department revealed that it uses the technology primarily for routine criminal investigations.

Some privacy advocates argue that stingray use can never happen within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment because the technology necessarily connects to every electronic device within range, not just the one held by the target. And the information collected by these devices undoubtedly ends up in federal data bases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, stingrays create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.

The federal government encourages and funds stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S., thereby undoubtedly gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on stingray use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.


All three bills were referred to the Committee on Codes for their respective chambers.

If you live in New York: click HERE and follow the steps to help get limit the use of stingrays.

If you live in another state: click HERE to get model legislation to protect privacy in your state.