Proposed NYC law would reveal surveillance secrets of US' largest police force

The NYPD has more resources and access to surveillance tech than most law enforcement agencies. This bill would require the force to disclose it all.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
4 min read

The NYPD's Joint Operations Center showing its video surveillance tools in 2016.

Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

New York could become the next city to pass oversight legislation for police surveillance technology, joining the likes of San Francisco and Oakland, California. If passed, it would be a landmark law for the largest police force in the US. 

The New York City Council held a hearing Wednesday with privacy advocates and two deputy commissioners from the New York Police Department testifying on the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act. The bill calls for the NYPD to develop a privacy impact report and disclose all surveillance technology that it uses on the public. 

Unlike other laws passed to regulate police surveillance, the POST Act is only calling for public disclosure of the technology, not limitations on it. 

"There's a growing list of other municipalities that have implemented similar and more stronger legislation in this nation, including Seattle, Oakland, Nashville, Detroit and Canada," Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who sponsored the bill, said at the hearing. "The POST Act, in this form, would be the weakest surveillance bill that we have in the country." 

The NYPD uses a massive arsenal of surveillance technology, from automatic license plate readers to facial recognition software to X-ray vans. The public doesn't really know how the NYPD uses this technology, and the bill hopes to remedy that. 

Across the country, local lawmakers have imposed limits on police technology, like facial recognition bans in San Francisco, Oakland and Somerville, Massachusetts. There are widespread privacy concerns surrounding facial recognition and license plate readers, causing cities like Seattle to pass bills requiring city council to approve any new surveillance technology used by police

New York doesn't have any laws regulating its police surveillance tech, and often all that's known about it is what law enforcement discloses, or what public documents reveal. If passed, the POST Act would ensure transparency for a police force that has more resources and access to the latest surveillance technology than most other law enforcement agencies. 

NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller told City Council members that this bill would harm NYPD efforts and endanger public safety. Miller argued that New York was a major target of terrorist attacks and needs these surveillance tools more than other cities.

"I don't know how high Cambridge is on the ISIS target list. Their needs and requirements are very different from that of New York," Miller said.

He noted that the NYPD's surveillance technology was kept secret by design, raising concerns that if its tools were publicly known, criminals would take advantage of the transparency and avoid being caught. 

Miller raised examples of several terrorist plots that the NYPD had foiled in recent years, arguing it may not have successfully prevented the attack if perpetrators knew about police surveillance tools. He asked that the bill be revised to create exceptions for surveillance technology in cases related to public safety, national security concerns and ongoing investigations. 

Miller also pointed out that the NYPD did disclose how it used surveillance technology, like for body-worn cameras, its Domain Awareness System and drones. But those were done voluntarily, not by any regulations and only account for a small amount of the NYPD's surveillance technology. 

But City Council members weren't buying it, arguing that people couldn't just rely on the department's promise to disclose how New Yorkers are being watched.
"We have to find some other way to ensure that the NYPD is complying with the Constitution, other than just relying on the (American) Civil Liberties Union and individual plaintiffs commencing litigation," Council Member Rory Lanceman said at the hearing.

There's also a wide gap between what the NYPD is willing to reveal compared with what researchers and public documents have uncovered. For example, at the hearing, Miller told the City Council that the NYPD only used facial recognition to compare photos against a database of mugshots for previously arrested criminals.
But in May, researchers from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology found that officers were using celebrity doppelgangers like Woody Harrelson and a New York Knicks player to search for potential matches of criminals. 

This is not the first time the POST Act has appeared in front of New York City's lawmakers. It was introduced in 2017 but has been pending over the last two years.

Privacy advocates at the hearing pushed for the bill's passage, arguing that the NYPD has been secretive about surveillance technology that has real impacts on people's lives. 

"At a time when more than a dozen cities have enacted surveillance reforms that are far stronger than the POST Act, the NYPD can't give one good reason to oppose this modest transparency reform," Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn said in a statement. "The fear tactics have worn thin, and the time has come for the City Council to act." 

Watch this: Your Ring camera could be a part of a police surveillance network