Sheriff’s office questioned over cell phone tracking device

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – After learning the Erie County Sheriff’s Office has a device that can track your cell phone, local lawmakers want to know how much information the device is gathering and who it is gathering data from.

Sheriff Timothy Howard says the intent of the device is for emergency use to quickly track down a dangerous suspect or a missing person. In that process, it works much like a radio trying to tune in a station by scanning through all the signals in a certain area.

The Erie County Legislature authorized the use of a Homeland Security grant to purchase the cell phone track equipment in 2008.

“A lot of people are very concerned and I know we need to have some answers,” Sheriff Howard said. “It is not used to monitor conversations from a cellular phone nor do we use the device to grab any text messages from those cellular phones. It’s only used to locate the phone.”

Although Sheriff Howard made the intent clear, he wasn’t willing to share the full scope of how the device is used and what it’s capable of doing.

He argued, “To answer that question would probably be to educate the public and the criminal members of the public to avoid the use or the efficiency of the device so I respectfully won’t answer.”

The sheriff maintained that aside from emergencies, the device is only used under a court order or warrant. There are six people in the department that are trained and authorized to use it.

But his word isn’t enough to convince everyone.

Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke said, “I still need assurances, physical proof other than the sheriff’s word. And I’m sure he’s an honorable man but I need evidence that this is being used appropriately.”

He intends to find other ways to get information on the technology that the sheriff is unwilling to provide.

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