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Keeping Eyes on NYPD Surveillance

In recent years, police departments throughout the country have quietly amassed an arsenal of sophisticated surveillance technologies without public notice, debate or oversight from local lawmakers.

June 13, 2017

UPDATE: The New York City Council will hold a hearing tomorrow on the Public Oversight and Surveillance Technology Act where Brennan Center expert, Michael Price will testify. Read our resource page for everything you need to know about the bill.

Prior to the hearing, there will be a press conference at 9:30 AM, which will be streamed live on Brennan Center’s Facebook.

Cross-posted from NY Daily News

New York City styles itself as a vibrant, 21st century city, home to the most diverse population on Earth. It is a modern city, an open city and a sanctuary city, now in open resistance to the Trump administration.

Still, New Yorkers suffer from a democratic deficit when it comes to policing and surveillance technology. Greater transparency and oversight are critical to maintaining both the safety and values of a strong, local democracy.

In recent years, police departments throughout the country have quietly amassed an arsenal of sophisticated surveillance technologies without public notice, debate or oversight from local lawmakers.

New York — where the NYPD has the responsibility not only of guarding against typical street crime but against terrorism — has been at the vanguard of this push.

Much of this technology was developed for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan; the funding to acquire it comes from federal grants, private donors or loopholes in local procurement procedures. As a result, the City Council has been excised from important decisions about local policing, including decisions about how the information captured by police may be used or shared with federal agencies.

The NYPD has used “Stingrays” — cell phone locators that log the location of every device that happens to be in the area, whether a residential neighborhood or a political protest, allowing the police to identify and track people.

The department uses military-grade X-ray vans, which utilize radiation to see through walls and inside cars.

It spent an estimated $40 million, with corporate funding, to create a “Domain Awareness System” that pools information from ubiquitous license plate readers, MetroCard swipes and the thousands of public and private security cameras that blanket the city.

The NYPD has also adopted sophisticated facial recognition technology to scour images from social media and surveillance cameras for potential offenders.

Such powerful new surveillance tools sweep up information about police targets and law-abiding New Yorkers alike.

And our elected representatives don’t know what policies — if any — the NYPD has in place to guard against the challenges these tools pose to privacy and First Amendment values. For example, what happens to the data that the NYPD collects? Might it be used by the Trump administration to unfairly target immigrants and Muslims?

Mayor de Blasio has promised to keep municipal ID card data out of federal hands, and vowed not to refer undocumented New Yorkers to federal immigration authorities unless they have been convicted of a violent or serious felony. But this does not address the trove of personal data held by the NYPD, including arrest records for minor offenses, which are accessible to federal agencies.

City Council members Daniel Garodnick (D-Manhattan) and Vanessa Gibson (D-Bronx) will introduce a bill Wednesday requiring the police to disclose what surveillance technologies they are using and how they are guarding against well-known risks. Dubbed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, it would allow lawmakers and the public a meaningful opportunity to participate in policy discussions that promote the efficient, fair and constitutional use of surveillance technologies.

This provides a critical democratic platform to address concerns of privacy rights, discrimination and the effective use of public funds.

The POST Act is sensitive to national security and public safety needs and does not require the police to stop using cutting-edge tools. Nor does the bill undermine operational secrecy.

It simply requires disclosure of big-picture information about new technologies and their permissible uses — before they hit the street. Even federal agencies responsible for national security routinely disclose such information, as recommended by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

By requiring reporting to the City Council, the bill incentivizes the NYPD to establish clear policies for using intrusive technology and sharing the data collected with federal or state agencies. Enacting the POST Act will also be an important step forward in the NYPD’s continuing quest to build trust among the diverse communities it polices, placing New York among the ranks of other major progressive cities like Seattle; San Francisco; Santa Clara, Calif., and Oakland, Calif., that have recently passed or introduced similar legislation.

Now more than ever, New York needs greater transparency, oversight and democratic accountability for local policing. The POST Act is an essential step in that direction that will promote both public safety and the rights of every New Yorker.


Flickr Image by Henrik Johansson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)