Security Hardware and Technology

NYPD Fights New Bill that Would Force Disclosure of Surveillance Arsenal

Top NYPD officials are voicing strong opposition to a New York City Council bill requiring the police department to publicly release information about its high-tech surveillance tools. The police department argues doing so could give criminals, terrorists, and other would-be attackers a road map of NYPD intelligence operations.

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The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act is a bill introduced by New York City Council members Dan Garodnick (D-Manhattan) and Vanessa Gibson (D-Bronx). Under the proposed rules, the NYPD would have to issue an “impact and use policy” document for each type of surveillance technology it uses now or acquires in the future.

Among one of the most technology-laden police forces in the country, The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act (POST Act), would require the NYPD to detail how it uses technologies like Stingrays, which track cell phone locations, license plate readers, X-ray vans that can see through walls and vehicles, and ShotSpotter, which detects gunshots. The bill also requires the department to disclose whether federal agencies, including immigration officials, would get access to NYPD surveillance data.

At a public hearing on the proposed legislation, police officers gave more than 2 hours of testimony, saying the bill is too broadly written and would provide a road map to terrorists and other criminals, allowing them to stay a step ahead of police, endangering lives in the process.

“The department absolutely opposes this proposal,” said John Miller, NYPD’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism. “In effect, it would create a one-stop-shopping guide for understanding these tools, and how to thwart them, for criminal elements and terrorists across the nation and the world.”

The New York City Council consists of 51 elected council members encompassing representation of the five boroughs. The 15 members of the City Council who are cosponsoring the legislation and the New York Civil Liberties Union feel 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, according to the bill supporters.

Some of the electronic surveillance equipment already deployed by the NYPD at issue includes:

  • The use of facial recognition software, body cameras, and more. The NYPD has adopted sophisticated facial recognition technology to scour images from social media and surveillance cameras for potential offenders.
  • The portable “Stingray” device can mimic cell phone towers and intercept a target phone’s signal. In the process, the device can target nearby phones of innocent users.
  • X-ray “backscatter” vans shoot X-rays to peer inside cars and buildings. Lawmakers want to know how the van is deployed, how long images are retained, and whose permission is required.
  • License-plate readers installed across the city and on police cars scan every vehicle, logging the information into a database and cross-checking the plate for theft, terrorism, or other wrongdoing.

Councilman Garodnick, coauthor of the bill told the hearing committee that he was willing to revise the bill with more input from the NYPD.