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Why is OWS Blanketed With NYPD Cameras – And Are Police Breaking the Law?

Occupy Wall Street, September 30, 2011. (Photo: David Shankbone)

On October 15, the day OWS solidarity protests broke out as far away as Australia and Japan, and thousands of people poured into Times Square, a line of NYPD TARU (Technical Assistance Response Unit) officers stood on the street, pointing handheld digital cameras at the protestors jammed behind metal barricades. The SkyWatch tactical platform unit — a “watchtower” with tinted windows like the one that's loomed over Zuccotti Park for most of the occupation — stood at one corner, its four cameras roving across the crowd. The whole scene unfolded under the NYPD security cameras stationed all over Times Square and in most parts of the city.

Like the massive crowd control arsenal unleashed on OWS — riot gear, smoke bombs, rubber bullets, pepper spray, horses, metal blockades, helicopters, plastic cuffs, and the police motorcycles, cars and vans that clog the streets — the three-tiered surveillance seemed like overkill for an overwhelmingly peaceful movement, where the occasional slur thrown at police is usually shouted down with reminders not to goad cops because they're part of the 99 percent.

It's unclear what the NYPD plans to do with footage obtained by TARU. But recording legal protest activity violates the Handschu decree, a set of legal guidelines designed to check the NYPD's historic tendency to steamroll First Amendment rights. The order emerged from a class-action lawsuit prompted by revelations that the NYPD had spent much of the 20th century and millions of dollars monitoring legal protest activity, an endeavor that generated up to a million files on such dangerous radicals as education reform groups and housing advocates. The Handschu decree prohibits investigations of legal political activity and the collection of data, including images and video of protests, unless a crime has been committed.

The ruling has had a complicated life post-9/11, mutating in response to terrorism fears and authorities' willingness to exploit them. A judge relaxed the order in 2003 after the NYPD argued it needed more flexibility to deal with terror threats. The department promptly proved its trustworthiness by secretively shooting hundreds of hours of footage of protestors at the Republican National Convention. In 2007 the court ruled that the NYPD had repeatedly violated Handschu and tightened the guidelines, limiting videotaping to cases where there's specific evidence that a crime has taken place.

An internal department memo sent out in 2007 instructs police to comply with the new order by only rolling the tape when “it reasonably appears that unlawful conduct is about to occur, is occurring, or has occurred during the demonstration.” But Franklin Siegal, a lawyer who has spent years fighting for Handschu in court, tells AlterNet he's received multiple complaints about police videotaping OWS protesters for no good reason.

“Your photo shouldn't be taken and made into a record if you're not engaged in anything illegal. At demonstrations with no illegal activity taking place, cameras shouldn't be on,” says Siegal.

The NYCLU has called on police commissioner Raymond Kelly to stop surveillance of the protests, citing the cameras pointed at Zuccotti Park and an incident where NYCLU representatives observed TARU members filming a peaceful march.

“This type of surveillance substantially chills protest activity and is unlawful. In light of the mayor's recognition of the peaceful nature of these protests, we call on you to stop the videotaping of lawful protest,” read the letter.

Another camera has more recently been hoisted above Zuccotti Park, joining the four sitting on top of the tactical platform unit (police claim the cameras are only transmitting a live feed and do not record video). Those cameras are visible, at least. Donna Lieberman, executive director of NYCLU, told AlterNet over the phone that Zuccotti can be seen from any number of NYPD security cameras in the area, both by private cameras attached to businesses that are accessible to police and NYPD security cameras.

A 2005 NYCLU survey found over 4,000 cameras below 14th street in Manhattan; five times more than they'd tallied in 1998. Lieberman says that number was a lowball because there are so many cameras that NYCLU didn't have the manpower or the time to count all of them.

Authors of the report warned at the time about a “massive surveillance infrastructure” creeping across the city, unattended by adequate public oversight or outside regulation. Five years later, there's no exact count of all the cameras in New York, but Lieberman says, “We believe if we were to try to repeat the survey today, we would find that there are so many more cameras. Way beyond our wildest imagination.”

Today that task would be complicated by the roll-out of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, a plan launched in 2005 to cover the area below Canal Street in video cameras constantly streaming footage that's analyzed at a centralized location. In 2009 police commissioner Raymond Kelly announced that the Initiative would be expanded to midtown.

In a macabre twist, journalist Pam Martens has discovered that the law enforcement center where much of the camera footage is examined can be accessed by high-level Wall street employees. Martens obtained 2005 correspondence from Commissioner Kelly promising Edward Frost, a then-Goldman Sachs VP, the creation of “a centralized coordination center that will provide space for full-time, on site representation from Goldman Sachs and other stakeholders.”

Martens writes, “According to one person who has toured the center, there are three rows of computer workstations, with approximately two-thirds operated by non-NYPD personnel. The Chief-Leader, the weekly civil service newspaper, identified some of the outside entities that share the space: Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, the Federal Reserve, the New York Stock Exchange. Others say most of the major Wall Street firms have an on-site representative.”

The surveillance gadgetry available to the NYPD, and apparently to the very finance industry forces that OWS is protesting, is sophisticated. There are license plate readers that can capture license plate numbers and match them to a database. The cameras can be programmed to alert officers to activities like loitering, and people can be followed as they move from camera to camera.

Over the past year, reports have come out suggesting that the NYPD has plans to integrate face recognition technology into the operation.

As the AP reported, “New facial-recognition technologies will soon make it possible to track exactly who is walking down the street,” [Bloomberg] said, adding that he believes “we're going in that direction.”

The mayor then opined, “As the world gets more dangerous, people are willing to have infringements on their personal freedoms that they would not before.”

At the beginning of the year, local outlets reported that the NYPD was recruiting officers for a new face recognition unit. The NYPD has not replied to repeated requests for comment, so it's not clear if the face recognition technology is in use, and if so, in what cameras — but a representative of ICX Technologies, the company that builds tactical platform towers like the one stationed at Zuccotti Park, tells AlterNet that the cameras on the tower are compatible with face recognition software.

That would mean an image can be matched up to a mugshot in any criminal database, or any non-criminal database for that matter — including one of the largest public identity databases in the world, Facebook.

Right after 9/11, when airports and cities enthusiastically embraced face recognition, the technology was fairly crude and a lot of the programs were dropped. But in the past 10 years advances in the software — including 3-D imaging and “skinmetrics,” which maps marks and imperfections in the skin of the face — have revived law enforcement and Homeland Security's interest.

Sophisticated face recognition software, combined with cameras that can track activity all over the city, would be a useful tool if police wished to collect dossiers on people involved in OWS, as they so casually did pre-Handschu.

Whatever the advances in technology, Siegal says that core principals should remain. “Police should not be keeping records about the legal, political, non-criminal activities of anyone.”

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