NYPD Surveillance Needs to Be More Transparent, Say Advocates

In January, New Yorkers learned more about the NYPD’s use of a broad range of technologies designed to keep tabs on them.

The documents released by the NYPD came as a result of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, known as the POST Act, passed by City Council in July. The documents provide detail into 36 separate surveillance technologies used by the department, ranging from gunshot detection to the employment of drones.

New York civil liberty organizations on Tuesday called for more transparency into the ways that the NYPD conducts surveillance in an online event pulled together by 10 groups, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“The NYPD is required to tell us the tools it’s using. It’s required to tell us what systems are being used to monitor New Yorkers every day. But instead, it is trying to rewrite history. It is trying to whitewash reality and it is trying to hide truth,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and lead organizer of Tuesday’s event.

Speaking at the online conference on Tuesday, policy advocates and attorneys from sponsoring organizations said the documents released by the NYPD fall short in providing transparency to the public and do not account for the disproportionate impact these technologies have on marginalized communities in the city.

The POST Act, which was formally introduced to City Council in February of 2018, required the NYPD to disclose surveillance technologies and “issue a surveillance impact and use policy” 180 days following the bill’s enactment. The bill also allowed for public comment regarding the released documents to be submitted for consideration by City Counsel up to 45 days following the release. The deadline for comments is February 25.

The documents, many of the speakers noted, lack specificity, and in some cases contain inaccurate statements, concerning the disparate impacts these technologies have on communities of color.

“They don’t meaningfully engage with the civil rights and civil liberties risks that are raised by technologies that are blanketing all of New York City, but particularly being used to target Black and Brown communities,” said Angel Diaz, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice Liberty and National Security Program. “We know for example, that the NYPD gang database is overwhelmingly Black and Latino, and that a lot of people may be added for making an assertion on social media,” he said.

Speakers also took aim at the NYPD’s use of facial recognition technology, which they argued leads to disproportionate misidentification of people of color that is not accounted for in the NYPDs’ policy document.

“Unfortunately, these policies largely include boilerplate and fake language such ‘the NYPD prohibits the use of racial and biased base enforcement,’” said Katurah Topps, policy counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “We are pushing the NYPD to update its policies to adhere to the POST Act’s basic requirements. This means including a meaningful assessment of the disparate impact that its tools have on protected classes. And this means requiring a racial justice analysis and assessment of the impact that these technologies have on communities most affected by the NYPD surveillance and technologies.”

Beyond lacking specificity in how the technologies affect disparate communities, Cahn said the disclosures lack key details such as, in many cases, the names of third-party companies that provide these capabilities or services to the department, how long they retain the surveillance data, the total cost of the programs, and how effective the technologies have been in reducing crime.

In an interview prior to Tuesday’s conference, Cahn said that not all of the technologies used by the NYPD are unreasonable, but he argued that the policy surrounding these technologies still falls short. He said the fingerprint system, for example, which could lead to a transmission of data from local to federal agencies, does not raise alarms at face value. But it could alert immigration officials, for example.

“But even that is one of the technologies where there’s clear error because the NYPD claims that this technology plays no role in immigration enforcement. But the truth is we know that because the NYPD’s fingerprint scans go through the state police database in Albany, which in turn connects to the FBI database in Washington, anytime they run someone’s fingerprint, it will actually go through and potentially be flagged for ICE,” he said.

Cahn’s organization has posted the NYPD’s policy documents on their website. He said thousands of New Yorkers have already provided comments on the policy for review by the City Council.

The policies are also available to the public on the NYPD’s website where a link is also provided for submitting comments by email. A statement on its website says: “The NYPD is committed to increasing transparency related to the use of surveillance technology within the bounds of responsive, efficient, and effective policing. The impact and use policies developed by the Department work to find a fair balance between the benefits provided through the use of technology and protecting individual privacy.”

The NYPD was not immediately available to respond to a request for comment by NY City Lens.