A New Era of Surveillance For the NYPD

The City Council is finally addressing the NYPD’s far-reaching surveillance powers. But some advocates say the much-celebrated legislation is hardly a victory.

Katya Schwenk Jun 25, 2020

For weeks, as demonstrators for black lives march in New York City, NYPD helicopters have hovered unusually low above them, at times only 100 feet overhead. Though NYPD has refused to comment on their use, for the protesters, they have served as a glaring reminder of the NYPD’s militarized and ever-present surveillance infrastructure.

Activists are demanding sweeping change. Are they getting toothless reforms instead?

Normally, much of that infrastructure is invisible: There is NYPD’s “gang” database, supported by social media monitoring tools, which the Intercept reported in 2018 includes at least 42,000 individuals, 99 percent of whom are people of color. There is the $40 million Domain Awareness System, a real-time map stitched together from cameras and license plate readers that can track individuals’ movements across the city with stunning precision. 

The NYPD also has drones, “X-Ray vans” that can look through walls, DNA indexes, facial recognition software and a storied history of violating civil liberties via surveillance. The sum total here is a surveillance capability that is massive and virtually unchecked, thanks to decades of investment by New York City in sophisticated tech and post-9/11 Homeland Security grants, which have funneled billions to law enforcement across the country, in part for surveillance. 

Much of what we know about these technologies, and their use, has come only from hard-fought legal battles and community organizing. There could be plenty more as yet undivulged.

Now, New York City is facing a reckoning. Demonstrators, aware of ever-present surveillance and the NYPD’s history of monitoring activists — black activists in particular — have taken to using more secure platforms like Signal for organizing, and have subsequently surprised law enforcement with massive crowds. 

Demonstrators are not just eluding the police. In the streets, protesters are taking a stand against the use of surveillance technology by law enforcement, condemning corporate-funded surveillance and pushing tech giants like IBM and Microsoft to rethink selling facial recognition software to law enforcement. 

For New York City and the nation, the protests could represent a breaking point for domestic spying by law enforcement. 

As calls to defund the police resound in the streets, the millions that law enforcement burns up on digital policing technology — the NYPD, for instance, spent a hefty $40 million developing just one of its sprawling crime-tracking systems — are falling under scrutiny. 

In response, the city has turned to reforms. 

On June 18, New York’s City Council passed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, in a vote of 44 to six. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill. Lawmakers hailed the legislation for ushering in a new era of transparency for city law enforcement, which has been mired in lawsuits over its resistance to release information on its policing methods. 

But some anti-surveillance advocates say it’s hardly a step forward.

“Reforms like this pretend we can reduce police violence by giving police more rules, requirements, criteria, and guidelines,” Shakeer Rahman, an attorney and an anti-surveillance activist, tells The Indypendent.

The legislation requires NYPD to publish “use policies” for all surveillance technology it deploys and to host a period of public comment before it implements new technology. Public comments are to be “considered” by the police before new tech is implemented. The bill’s advocates say it will reveal critical new information on the NYPD’s surveillance capabilities. But for Rahman, this filtered transparency only serves to empower surveillance.

The NYPD will use the POST Act to “claim their violence is legitimated by transparency and public input,” he says.

The POST Act had stalled in City Council for years but resurfaced over the last several weeks as the cries of protesters pressed lawmakers into action. It emerged alongside a slew of other police reform bills now pending in the council; one that prevents officers from hiding their badge numbers, for example, and another that codifies the right to record on-duty officers.

Protesters remain unsatisfied. “It’s like giving us crumbs,” one demonstrator said of the reforms on June 18. “We don’t want your crumbs.” 

Such sentiment echoes nationally, as demonstrators call for defunding or outright abolishing the police and cities serve up an array of far weaker reforms. This disparity between demand and reply is particularly stark when it comes to New York. The POST Act may reveal more about surveillance tech, but it imposes no regulations for its use, nor does it probe into the larger question of whether police should be deploying it at all, particularly on demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights.

Still, many argue reforms like the POST Act are a move in the right direction. Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, calls the bill a “crucial” first step. “We can’t create rules of the road for surveillance until we know what tools the NYPD is using,” he says. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has helped push similar legislation through other municipal governments via its Community Control of Police Surveillance (CCOPS) project, which has helped pass police oversight laws in 13 cities nationwide, sometimes collaborating closely with law enforcement to do so. These bills usually carry more weight than New York’s version, requiring city approval for the purchase of new surveillance technology, for instance. But they fall short of outright bans on invasive tech, like San Francisco’s pioneering ban on facial recognition last year.

In the wake of a national movement that challenges the very premise of law enforcement, all of a sudden oversight laws feel antiquated. “[Demonstrators] are not marching for police self-auditing and impact reports,” Rahman notes. 

They’re marching for something much bigger. 

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