Screengrab of documents obtained by the NYCLU related to the use of cell-site simulators by the New York Police Department

The New York Police Department has used controversial cellphone tracking technology over a thousand times since 2008 and appears to have farmed out the devices to law enforcement agencies up and down the East Coast, from Florida to Massachusetts.

Documents obtained by the New York Civil Liberties Union through a state Freedom of Information Law request indicate New York City police have used cell-site simulators made by the Florida-based Harris Corp., better known through product-specific names such as Hailstorm and StingRay, to track down a wide range of people through their cellphone signals. A detective from the department’s Technical Assistance Response Unit also signed one of Harris’ nondisclosure agreements.

The records are notable for being the first documentation proving that the New York Police Department uses cell-site simulators. The next largest police departments in the country, in Chicago and Los Angeles, use cell-site simulators that can both track location and intercept phone calls and data transmissions. Furthermore, the New York Civil Liberties Union documents are the most detailed accounting of how a major police department uses cell-site simulators for criminal offenses ranging from homicide to prank calling 911.

Redactions made by the police department obscure the date, target and arrest location for each instance in which a cell-site simulator was used. Fields that were not redacted include the squad that used the devices, the results and the top charge filed against a suspect.

The documents make clear that cell-site simulators have been used to track down suspects in violent crimes. Two suspects in the December 2011 killing of Officer Peter Figoski in East New York appear to have been tracked down with cell-site simulators, according to the data.

“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 cell phones,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

According to the police department’s response to the open records request, it seeks judicial approval to use the tracking technology with a PEN register, a court order that has a lesser legal standard than a search warrant. States such as Virginia, Washington and California recently have passed legislation requiring search warrants to use cell-site simulators.

Peter Donald, a New York police spokesman, defended the department’s use of PEN registers to authorize the use of cell-site simulators.

“The NYPD, before using this technology, ensures we have established probable cause, consults with a District Attorney, and applies for a court order, which must be approved by a judge,” Donald wrote in an emailed statement. “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.”

It is unclear whether any cases in the recently released data reflect emergency situations.

The technology has been used to locate a material witness and suspects for nonviolent crimes such as burglary, money laundering and, in the case of one Queens resident, calling 911 too frequently.

On more than 20 occasions, the department appears to have permitted other agencies to use its cell-site simulators to track down suspects for offenses ranging from homicide to drug trafficking and child endangerment. It is not clear under what authority the police department allowed other jurisdictions to use its equipment. Donald would not comment on that matter, and the police did not produce memorandums of understanding or other relevant documentation to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“We have seen this pattern in other places,” said Mariko Hirose, the New York Civil Liberties Union attorney who filed the open records request. Last year, the organization obtained documentation from the Erie County Sheriff’s Office that showed that the office had lent its cell-site simulator to smaller law enforcement agencies in western New York.

Hirose said the New York Police Department did not produce any documentation for the loan of its equipment. The inclusion of other agencies in the documents, she said, “could mean they were working with the NYPD, or NYPD loaned their equipment out – it’s not clear.”

Other agencies identified in the data include the Nassau County Police Department, the Baltimore County Police Department and Baltimore city police – an odd request because that agency has owned a cell-site simulator since 2007. References to law enforcement agencies from the Massachusetts cities of Worcester (misspelled as “Wooster”) and Cambridge, as well as Broward County, Florida, also appear in the data.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, and the name of New York police Officer Peter Figoski.

Ali Winston

Ali Winston is a freelance reporter, covering surveillance, privacy and criminal justice. His writing has won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, the New York City Community Media Alliance, the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Originally from New York, he is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley.