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Police use cellphone spying device

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The Erie County sheriff says he's done making public comments about a cellphone surveillance device used by his police agency to gather information on persons of interest.

Sheriff Tim Howard told WGRZ Thursday that he won't publicly discuss the matter any longer because doing so could adversely impact investigations.

A stingray is a device that mimics a cell tower and thereby tricks all wireless devices on the same network into communicating with it.

Howard told Erie County legislators last week that the stingray surveillance device his office has owned since 2008 is used only for tracking a person's movements, not for gathering content of cellphone communications. The surveillance equipment can capture data from targeted cellphones even when they're not in use.

He told the lawmakers that the courts should determine how he can use the equipment, not them.

Use of the device has raised concerns among Buffalo-area lawmakers over potential abuses of people's privacy.

Democratic Legislator Patrick B. Burke says that the equipment can capture data from cellphones even when they’re not in use.

When Howard was asked by lawmakers how many times his department has used the stingray device, he refused to answer.

The county used a $283,000 terrorism prevention grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pay for the device.

Erie County is not the only locality to use the devices.  The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California released a report in March showing unregulated use of Stingrays in California.  They reported 'widespread' use of the devices by police departments in the Golden State.  The devices are being purchased with federal grant money.

In Florida, the city of Sunrise refused to confirm or deny the existence of any records related it a stingray device it owns, according to another ACLU report.

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