ALBUQUERQUE, NM--Today, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico filed a public records lawsuit against the City of Albuquerque for withholding information regarding the Albuquerque Police Department’s (APD) use of Stingrays, a surveillance technology that allows law enforcement to gather cellphone users’ data and track individuals’ movements. The lawsuit challenges APD’s refusal to disclose information requested by the ACLU under New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act on whether APD is employing this technology, and if so, what policies and procedures govern its use.
“These devices are incredibly invasive and the government isn’t being transparent about how they are being used,” said ACLU Executive Director Peter Simonson. “If APD is using Stingrays to snoop into people’s private information, the public has a right to know. We also need to ensure that protections are in place to prevent these powerful tools from being misused or abused.”
Stingrays, also known as cell site simulators, trick phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information by mimicking cell phone towers. When they’re used to track a suspect, they also scoop up information from bystanders in the area, who are not the target of any investigation. Nationally, the use of these devices has been shrouded in secrecy, with many law enforcement agencies refusing to even acknowledge whether they employ Stingray technology or not. The full range of Stingray capabilities is unknown, but evidence suggests that the devices are likely capable of accessing cellphone browser activity, SMS text messages, and the content of phone calls.
On May 22, the ACLU of New Mexico filed an IPRA request seeking the following information from the City of Albuquerque:
Policies and procedures regarding the collection, retention and storage of data collected by Stingrays, including the handling of data obtained from innocent bystanders
Policies and procedures regarding who is allowed to use Stingrays, and whether warrants are required before surveillance is conducted
Whether these devices are used in conjunction with federal agencies in immigration related investigations
Any contracts or purchase agreements with the device manufacturer and federal law enforcement agencies
On June 5, the Albuquerque Police Department responded, denying the ACLU’s request by invoking the “law enforcement exception,” a clause in the IPRA law which exempts a very narrow category of information relating to law enforcement investigations from public inspection. In its lawsuit, the ACLU of New Mexico contends that the requested information is not covered by the law enforcement exception and APD is in violation of IPRA.
“The City of Albuquerque has a track record of using the law enforcement exception as a fig leaf when they don’t want to share public records,” said Simonson. “If Albuquerque is going to have the transparent and accountable police department we deserve, the City needs to stop stonewalling and disclose information about how it collects and uses cell phone data.”