The Real Reason the NYPD Won’t Disclose Its Surveillance Technologies

The NYPD is opposing a national effort to regulate law enforcement surveillance technologies, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars.The NYPD is opposing a national effort to regulate law enforcement surveillance technologies, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars. (Photo: Samantha Grace Lewis / Flickr)

What is the New York Police Department (NYPD) hiding this time? A new bill aimed at increasing police transparency has, unsurprisingly, received swift push-back from the NYPD. Introduced by City Council members Daniel Garodnick and Vanessa Gibson, the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act (POST) is part of a national effort to regulate mass surveillance. The bill would require the department to publicly disclose the surveillance technologies it has and allow the public to voice their opinion on if, when and how they should be allowed to use them.

In opposition to the bill, the NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters, Larry Byrne, claimed that publicly revealing their technologies would help terrorists figure out ways to circumvent them. This is an unfounded claim that attempts to ignite fear in order to distract the public from learning the truth about the NYPD’s use of surveillance technologies. The truth is that they are used on innocent civilians, without oversight and with a high price tag.

In recent years, information obtained by the New York Civil Liberties Union has begun to expose the NYPD’s arsenal of military-grade technology. Mobile x-ray vans — vans from Afghanistan that can see through cars, walls and clothing — and Stingrays — cell-site simulators that allow police to track cell phones and their activity — are just a few examples. From what has been made public, it is clear that this technology is not strictly used for counterterrorism. Out of the 1,016 uses of Stingrays, the activity log only mentions terrorism twice.

Additionally, with the trend toward “predictive policing,” departments are tracking virtually everybody — regardless of suspicion of terrorism or criminal activity — to look for signs indicative of future criminality. “Dataveillance” — surveilling individuals through their data trails, such as online activity, call logs and credit card purchases — is gaining popularity among local police departments. For example, the NYPD has access to license plate reader databases that they can use to track a car’s movement in real-time or identify historical location patterns and find cars commonly in close proximity. Consequently, innocent activity can often be misinterpreted with these types of tools. If you have the same daily commute as a known drug trafficker, for example, this software may flag you as suspicious. Social media monitoring companies also track and save bulk social media user data by content, activity and location. Recently, it was revealed that many departments were using this type of technology to track activists and Black Lives Matter protesters. Do you know what was going on nearby every time you posted on Facebook or Twitter? Of course not. But if you were unwittingly near a protest or other scrutinized activity, you could also have been put on a watch list. With this type of over-broad surveillance, nobody is safe from suspicion.

These powerful surveillance technologies are being used with little to no judicial oversight. No warrants were required to use Stingrays, and although the NYPD claims that they would obtain a lower-level court order, those policies were often ignored by departments. We still don’t know what, if any, oversight was required to use the mobile x-ray vans or access the license plate reader database; and no judicial consent is seemingly needed for social media monitoring or other types of online dataveillance.

What allows these programs to operate outside of legal channels? Lack of transparency. Law enforcement agencies have been able to use surveillance services through secret, behind-the-scenes “partnerships.” AT&T’s Hemisphere program, for example, sold customer call records and cell data to law enforcement agencies without warrants or judicial oversight, only requiring that the departments not disclose their partnerships. The FBI required the same confidentiality from departments to use Stingrays. These programs were kept so secret, in fact, that departments were actually required to recreate evidence or drop charges against individuals if prosecuting their cases would have revealed the technology.

Secret partnerships also function to hide just how costly surveillance technology is. Mobile x-ray vans cost $729,000-$825,000; New York State police paid over $640,000 for Stingrays; the NYPD paid $442,500 for access to the license plate reader database; and law enforcement agencies paid $100,000-$1 million for access to Hemisphere data.

However, tax dollars aren’t the only currency paying for this technology. Since it is often contracted from private, for-profit companies, lack of regulations may allow companies to sell personal data that was collected through law enforcement surveillance. Insurance companies or advertising agencies with an interest in your driving patterns, for example, could pay for access to Vigilant’s license plate reader database, even though some of the data is collected by law enforcement. This means that your privacy is not only being invaded, it is being sold.

Surveillance technology is costing the public their privacy rights and tax dollars. We cannot let the NYPD continue to use fear-mongering tactics in order to evade transparency and accountability. This bill is a praiseworthy attempt to expose and regulate the surveillance industry and allow the public to engage in a cost/benefit analysis of surveillance technology.