CIVIC CENTER — A new City Council bill would require the NYPD to share information on the wide range of high-tech spy tools it uses with the public — but the NYPD blasted the bill as a road map for terrorists to duck law enforcement efforts.
The bill, dubbed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology, or POST Act, would require the department to publish reports on the technologies it currently uses, which include the phone-locating Stingray system and ShotSpotter, as well as publish its plans for the implementation of any new surveillance tools.
Under the new legislation, the NYPD would publish a draft of its impact and use policy for each technology, including a description of capabilities, rules, processes, guidelines and any safeguards and that would protect the information collected.
The public would then have a period of time to review the policy and submit comments for consideration by Commissioner James O’Neill, who would work them into the final draft of the policy, and provide the final draft to the mayor and the City Council. The final draft would be posted on the NYPD’s website.
Tools currently in use by the NYPD include the Stingray, which gathers cellphone data; "military-grade" X-ray vans that can see through walls and vehicles; automatic license plate readers on public roads and patrol cars and the ShotSpotter gunfire detection system, according to the bill's sponsors.
The NYPD also uses the Domain Awareness System, which stitches together data from security cameras, license plate readers, E-Z Pass readers, and MetroCard swipes around the city to track New Yorkers' movement, according to bill sponsor Councilman Dan Garodnick and Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, who co-sponsored the bill.
NYPD has a long history of both legal and illegal surveillance on student protesters, Muslims, Black Panthers, organized crime members and conservative groups. While the NYPD did not admit wrongdoing over the Muslim surveillance program, it agreed to implement a series of reforms and pay $1.67 million to plaintiffs of a civil rights lawsuit.
“New Yorkers should have the opportunity to weigh in on what surveillance measures are being taken in their name,” Garodnick said.
But the bill is already getting pushback from NYPD leaders, who said this week that it will hamper their ability to go after terrorists and other threats. In an unrelated press conference on Wednesday, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neil said the bill would “not be helpful to anyone.”
Larry Byrne, deputy commissioner for legal matters, went a step farther arguing it would empower terrorists.
“If we had to comply with this bill, the next issue of Inspire magazine that came out after it would be devoted to, 'Here are all of the technologies the NYPD uses to prevent terrorist attacks, here’s how you can disable these technologies, here how you can avoid these technologies',” he said on Wednesday, referring to the English-language, online publication of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“This is a very misguided attempt and I don’t know a police department or law enforcement organization or military unit in the United States that has this type of requirement imposed on them by law,” Byrne added.
Garodnick described the POST Act as the broadest attempt by elected officials at bringing police surveillance policies under public oversight, but it will not be the first of its kind.
The POST bill comes in the wake of similar measures elsewhere that have aimed to bring police surveillance under public scrutiny, including a 2013 ordinance in Seattle that provided greater oversight of its police force’s surveillance programs, and in 2016 Santa Clara County in California passed a law requiring agencies to issue public notices any time a surveillance tool was activated, according to a statement from the new bill’s supporters.
The civil liberties of New Yorkers in groups previously targeted for surveillance are of particular importance now, Garodnick said.
“As the Trump administration moves to expand surveillance, New Yorkers deserve to know what, if any, sensitive data could potentially be shared by the NYPD with the federal government.”
Garodnick took to Twitter to criticize the NYPD's comments as “wildly overblown.”
Garodnick and Gibson said they have no interest in hampering the ability of the NYPD to fight crime and protect New Yorkers, but according to Gibson, New Yorkers should not have to choose between the safety and privacy.
“Improving the community’s ability to trust, communicate, and work with the NYPD is paramount to our collective goal of keeping New Yorkers safe,” Gibson said.
The NYPD has been historically reluctant to share information on its surveillance programs. In 2016, documents released in response to a FOIL request by the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that the department had used Stingrays — devices that mimic a cell tower and allow the department to spy on cellphones in a given search area and gather data including the phone numbers of people a cellphone user has texted or called and in some cases the content of communications — more than 1,000 times between 2008 and 2005.
Prior to that, the department had not been forthcoming about the extent of its use of the devices, according to the NYCLU.
According to the documents released last year, the NYPD had no written policy on the use of Stingrays, but it was revealed that the typical policy was to obtain a “pen registration order,” a court order that the NYCLU described as less protective of privacy than a formal search warrant.