Keeping tabs on NYPD surveillance
Proposed legislation would require police to disclose use of controversial technologies
City council members Dan Garodnick and Vanessa Gibson (center) introduced legislation requiring increased police transparency. Photo: Michael Garofalo
NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill said a proposed police surveillance oversight bill “would not be helpful to anyone in New York City.” Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.
A new bill introduced in the City Council last week would allow for increased transparency on a topic that has long been opaque to elected officials and members of the public: the surveillance activity of the New York City Police Department.
The Public Oversight in Surveillance Technology Act, introduced by Council Members Dan Garodnick and Vanessa Gibson, would require the NYPD to publicly disclose surveillance tools it uses or plans to use, outline their capabilities, and issue policies and procedures governing their use. “It forces the NYPD to actually think about privacy before they jump into a new surveillance scheme,” Garodnick said.
In the years since the 9/11 attacks, the NYPD secretly adopted various controversial surveillance tactics that later came to light through press reports and court cases brought by civil liberties groups, rather than via disclosure to City Council members tasked with overseeing the department’s operations.
For years, the NYPD spied on the city’s Muslim community, eavesdropping on conversations and infiltrating mosques with informers in a long-running program that, according to NYPD officials in court testimony first reported by the Associated Press, never resulted in a terrorism investigation or even a single lead. The NYPD is currently engaged in discussions to resolve two lawsuits relating to the program, and recently agreed to a proposed settlement that would subject the department to increased civilian oversight.
Technologies implemented by the NYPD without public input include Stingrays, which allow police to track the location of cellphone users and, in some cases, intercept their communications, and x-ray vans known as “backscatters” that can see through walls and vehicles, and which critics say may expose bystanders to harmful radiation. The department also uses a platform known as the Domain Awareness System that aggregates data from various sources, including license plate readers, MetroCard swipes, and thousands of publicly and privately owned surveillance cameras, enabling police to track the movement of individuals throughout the city.
“Once we started hearing about the Stingrays and the backscatters and the technology that was brought to light by the NYCLU and Brennan Center [for Justice] and others, it left some of us scratching our heads, because we don’t really understand how it’s being used and we probably should,” Garodnick said.
In addition to its disclosure requirements, the bill would require the department to detail whether outside agencies within the state or federal government have access to information collected by the NYPD. Gibson said that the bill was not drafted in response to recent actions taken by President Donald Trump to step up federal immigration enforcement, but Garodnick said the measure takes on increased significance in light of the current political climate. “This reinforces our commitment to being a real sanctuary city, and makes it clear to every New Yorker whether data collected by our own surveillance tools can be shared, or even is shared, with the federal government,” he said.
The bill does not require the NYPD to provide an accounting of surveillance tools or tactics utilized in the past that are no longer employed, nor does it provide a mechanism for the City Council to prevent the adoption of controversial new technologies by the NYPD.
Gibson and Garodnick said that the bill will not impinge on the NYPD’s ability to keep New Yorkers safe, since it does not restrict the department’s use of technologies or require disclosure of operational details.
Despite those assurances, police officials were quick to push back against the proposed oversight measures. “This bill would not be helpful to anyone in New York City,” NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill said at a press conference on crime statistics after the legislation was announced.
Lawrence Byrne, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal matters, called the bill “misguided” and said that the department “strongly” opposes it. Byrne invoked the name of a jihadist publication to make his point, saying, “If we had to comply with this bill, the next issue of Inspire Magazine that came out after it would be devoted to: ‘Here are all the technologies the NYPD uses to prevent terrorist attacks.’”
Byrne said that he knows of no police department in the country that is subject to requirements like those laid out in the bill. But Michael Price, counsel at the Brennan Center’s Liberty & National Security Program, which helped to draft the bill, explained that surveillance oversight legislation has been passed or is pending in several cities and counties across the country, including Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, and Santa Clara County, California.
“We certainly looked at those bills when we were drafting this,” he said. “There are differences, but that legislation coming out of California and Washington really sort of gave us the inspiration to do it here.” Price said that while other laws have given local legislatures the power to approve or deny the use of police technologies, the New York City bill is strictly an oversight and transparency measure.
The bill’s authors say that it will help to foster trust between citizens and the NYPD. “Let’s face it. People learn about police surveillance tools, eventually,” Garodnick said. “This bill gives a chance for the public to understand it, not just by hearing it leaked out in dribs and drabs.”
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