Privacy SOS

NYC police are spying on your phone, and ACLU files suit over anti-Muslim spying program

Two big ACLU lawsuits are in the news this week.

First, stingrays. My colleagues at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) successfully sued the NYPD to force the release of documents pertaining to the department’s use of controversial cell site simulators, devices capable of tracking thousands of phones at a time, and even wiretapping text messages and calls. The documents reveal that NYPD has been using stingrays since 2008, almost exclusively in routine criminal investigations. The records also show that NYPD has not obtained warrants to use the device, instead applying for pen register/trap and trace orders, which do not require a showing of probable cause. Unlike warrants, these court orders only require that law enforcement show a judge the surveillance target’s phone information may be “relevant and material” to a criminal investigation, a legal standard that allows police to cast a wide net. The records disclosed to NYCLU show NYPD has used stingrays over 1,000 times since 2008, entirely in routine criminal investigations. I was unable to find a single reference to terrorism among the reasons the stingray was deployed. (NYPD deployed the device a few times for what they call “terroristic threats.” If you Google that term + NYPD, you’ll find the NYPD calls threats against police officers “terroristic threats.”) Read more about the stingray disclosures, and take a look at the documents yourself.

Meanwhile, the national ACLU yesterday announced a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and other federal agencies over a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request pertaining to the “countering violent extremism” (CVE) program. The Intercept reports:

The government has provided few details on how it actually intends to “counter extremism” in the U.S., despite calling CVE an “administration priority” in the 2017 fiscal budget and allocating tens of millions of dollars in spending. In an indication of how these efforts are ramping up, this week a Senate subcommittee on Homeland Security approved a bill to create of an “Office for Partnerships Against Violent Extremism,” which will soon head to the full Senate for approval. A 2017 budget submission for the Office of Justice Programs also mentions “$69 million for CVE programs” proposed for the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice.

“Countering violent extremism programs have been identified by the government as top national security priority, but the public knows appallingly little about them,” says Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “We’re suing because government agencies have repeatedly failed to provide us information that we’ve requested about the nature of their CVE initiatives.”

In a briefing paper released with their lawsuit, the ACLU said that CVE programs often target “people for monitoring based on their beliefs or ideologies,” thus potentially criminalizing speech protected under the First Amendment. It also highlighted past abuses of CVE programs, including instances in which young people who refused to take part were characterized as radicals and where community leaders were told they would have to identity and discuss cases of specific youths with law enforcement.

Boston is a pilot CVE city. It’s still unclear what exactly the federal government plans to do about CVE in the Boston area. ACLU of Massachusetts board member and founder of the Muslim Justice League, Shannon Erwin, explained why we are concerned about the pilot program.

Shannon Erwin, the executive director of Boston’s Muslim Justice League, says she is particularly concerned about the intervention idea. In the absence of reliable signs to diagnose a budding extremist, she worries young people might come under scrutiny for, say, airing legitimate grievances about U.S. foreign policy. By enlisting social service and mental health providers, the pilot could scare off local Muslims needing help, she said.

The administration still hasn’t explained to the public exactly what it intends to do with its CVE efforts. Let’s hope the ACLU lawsuit shines some much needed light.

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.