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NYPD may soon have to divulge surveillance technologies

Concern rises that government agencies are using largely unregulated technology to monitor nationwide police brutality protests

A helicopter flies over a protest against police brutality in New York on May 30, 2020.
A helicopter flies over a protest against police brutality in New York on May 30, 2020. (Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file photo)

The New York City Police Department may soon be required to divulge information about its use of electronic surveillance tools amid growing concern that government agencies are using largely unregulated technology to monitor nationwide protests against police brutality.

The City Council overwhelmingly approved legislation, known as the POST Act, that would require the NYPD to issue a report for the first time to explain the tools at its disposal and their uses. The department maintains one of the country’s largest networks of surveillance cameras and has other tools such as facial recognition software, license plate readers and mobile phone trackers.

The legislation passed Thursday is one of a handful of NYPD changes that have been approved since protests broke out after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May. Privacy and civil liberties advocates say the bill, which was first introduced in 2018 but had lain dormant without a commitment that Mayor Bill de Blasio would sign it into law, may not have passed without the protests.

“People have been pushed too far to the limit, and they’re tired,” Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who sponsored the legislation, said at a news conference before the vote. “We have seen too many of our brothers and sisters who have been victims of police surveillance for far too long.”

De Blasio, under pressure by activists to support policing overhaul measures, last week signaled his support for the bill over the objection of the NYPD, which has said the bill would cripple anti-terrorist investigations and leave police officers exposed. Contacted by CQ Roll Call, a spokesperson for de Blasio declined to say when the mayor plans to sign the bill into law.

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“The broad language in the POST Act would include sensitive and confidential technology used by undercover police officers on the most dangerous assignments,” the NYPD said in a Twitter post. “Publicly disclosing this technology would compromise their safety and effectiveness.”

But proponents of the bill say it is long overdue and is only an underpinning for additional accountability measures in the future, in part because the bill does not actually govern police use of surveillance technology, just its disclosure.

Some cities have outlawed law enforcement use of certain tools, such as facial recognition, but the NYPD has resisted limits on what technologies it can and cannot use.

“This is the floor and not the ceiling,” said Gibson. “This legislation is the foundation, the beginning, not the end for the NYPD to be held accountable. We fundamentally believe that fighting for people’s basic human and civil rights and protecting the public are not mutually exclusive.”

The legislation earned the support of powerful allies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Urban Justice Center’s Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, or STOP, which campaigns specifically for limitations on surveillance by the NYPD.

“Reforming surveillance is a matter of life and death,” Albert Fox Cahn, STOP’s executive director, wrote in a New York Daily News op-ed. “More surveillance means more stops, arrests and potential for police violence. As we’ve all seen too clearly, any police interaction can be deadly, especially for black New Yorkers.”

The City Council is considering other ways to monitor surveillance technology, particularly facial recognition. Bills that would require business owners to notify customers if facial recognition tools are in use and require property owners to publicly register facial recognition and other biometric tools are also up for debate.

[New York eyes regulation of facial recognition technology]

Protest surveillance

The use of surveillance tools by law enforcement at protests around the country has generated significant attention in recent weeks, with privacy groups, government watchdogs and lawmakers in Washington pressing the government for information about the tactics and technologies used.

Democrats in Congress have written to a slew of federal agencies — including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, National Guard Bureau, Homeland Security Department and Defense Department — about various press reports outlining surveillance attempts at protests.

[Democrats seek answers on high-tech surveillance of protesters by U.S. agencies]

On Friday, The New York Times reported that the Homeland Security Department, which includes Customs and Border Protection, has gathered at least 270 hours of surveillance footage in 15 cities around the United States, including New York, by flying planes, helicopters and drones above protests. The footage was logged into a program that can be accessed by other agencies and local police departments, the Times reported.

Last week, Joseph Kernan, the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, said in a letter to the House Intelligence Committee that he had not received instructions from the White House “to undertake any unlawful or inappropriate intelligence activities that could violate civil liberties in association with domestic civil disturbance.”

But prompted by lawmakers’ concerns, the inspector general of the Air Force is investigating reports that Air National Guard units were improperly deployed to monitor protests in D.C. and Minneapolis to conduct surveillance of protests.

Democrats have argued that federal surveillance of protesters could result in a chilling effect that could prevent Americans from exercising their First Amendment rights.

“Americans should not have to take proactive measures to protect themselves from government surveillance before engaging in peaceful demonstrations,” Reps. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., and Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., wrote to a group of federal agencies recently. “The fact that the agencies you lead have created an environment in which such headlines are common is, in and of itself, an indication of the chilling effect of government surveillance on law-abiding Americans.”  

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