CIVIC CENTER — A bill requiring the NYPD to divulge details of its use of surveillance technologies is "insane" and would provide criminals and terrorists with a roadmap to skirt detection, top department officials said at a contentious City Council hearing Wednesday.
Despite assurances from co-sponsors of the bill — dubbed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology, or POST Act — would allow police to continue monitoring criminals and terrorists, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller testified that the bill, could endanger investigations give bad guys a roadmap for avoiding or defeating police surveillance methods.
"This legislation would provide an effective blueprint for those looking to do harm,” Miller said, in the hearing before the Council's Public Safety Committee. “It would be asking us to, say, describe manufacturing type and capability of recording devices worn by undercover officers or other personnel involved in investigations. That would be insane," he said.
“This is not a passing objection,” Miller added. “Terrorists and criminals do their due diligence and they literally study and adapt to evolving security measures.”
The Post Act, which was introduced in March by Councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Vanessa Gibson, 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 bill, the NYPD would be required to issue a draft of each new technology’s impact and a use policy for each technology, including a description of capabilities, rules, processes, guidelines and any safeguards and that would protect the information collected.
The bill's co-sponsors argue that it would provide New Yorkers with a better idea of the resources police use to tackle crime and terrorism and could help prevent potential abuses or targeting of specific communities, without revealing anything that would help criminals
Garodnick acknowledged the need for police to have the ability to carry out surveillance programs, but said an increase in transparency would prevent potential abuses, or broad targeting of specific communities.
“We carefully crafted the bill so that it does not require the NYPD to disclose operational details regarding when and where it will employ a specific tool,” he said. "Let's face it — people always learn about police surveillance tools eventually."
But top department brass rankled at what they said would give bad actors a leg up in adapting to 21st Century policing methods.
Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said if the NYPD were “obligated to publicly post a detailed description of this technology and its capabilities," it would reveal "the systems’ potential strengths and limitations to those who would be seeking to exploit this technology or avoid registering altogether."
"Surveillance is not an ominous exercise by law enforcement — it is routine police work," he added.
Miller went a step farther, disputing the use of the word "surveillance" and criticizing what he described as a tendency toward "paranoia" when it comes to security cameras and tools such as Stingray and ShotSpotter.
“I believe there’s a false premise that there’s broad surveillance of large swaths of the city,” he said.
“There’s a trend of calling sensors and cameras ‘surveillance’ when there’s nobody actually watching those cameras at a given moment.”
But for Councilman Rory Lancman, such misconceptions are exactly why the public should have more information about the department's spy tools.
"The more we can reveal to the public about NYPD surveillance tools, the less paranoia there may be," he said.
The NYPD has been historically reticent to share information on its surveillance programs, and most of the information currently in the public eye is only there because of FOIL requests or City Council legislation, Garodnick said.
In 2016, documents released in response to a FOIL request by the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that the department had used Stingrays 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.
Garodnick, meanwhile, was not buying the idea that his bill would provide criminals and terrorists a "roadmap" for how to break the law under the radar of investigators, citing similar transparency policies at the federal level.
“That’s ridiculous,” Garodnick said. “That claim is significantly undercut by the fact that the Department of Homeland Security is doing it, the Department of Justice is doing it, if they can do it, New York can too.”
The bill remains in committee while Garodnick and his co-sponsors go over the legislation with NYPD representatives in an effort to meet some of the department's concerns while sticking to the intent of the original bill, Garodnick said.