NYC to force NYPD to reveal its secret surveillance tech

NYPD cameras sign in Manhattan.
NYPD cameras sign in Manhattan.
Alena Veasey/Shutterstock
NYPD cameras sign in Manhattan.

NYC to force NYPD to reveal its secret surveillance tech

Legislation three years in the making will require the police to disclose information about facial recognition and other tools.
June 17, 2020

On Thursday, the New York City Council is all but guaranteed to pass the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act – a bill that’s languished in the council since 2017, which will force the New York City Police Department to disclose the technology it uses, how it uses those tools and what privacy measures are in place governing their use. On Wednesday, in a sign of just how much the appetite for policing reform has grown in the last month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would sign the POST Act, once passed by the council.

Ever since the bill was proposed in 2017 by then-City Councilman Dan Garodnick – and re-introduced by Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson – the NYPD has pushed back against it, saying that disclosing information about the surveillance and other technology tools it uses would put their own officers at risk. “If this bill becomes law, it would create a roadmap for terrorists and criminals to more effectively carry out their crimes,” an NYPD spokeswoman told City & State of the POST Act last August. Particular NYPD technologies that have received criticism from privacy advocates and some lawmakers include its facial recognition database, drone program and DNA database.

After attempts to attract the support of the NYPD, with council members saying they’d welcome the department’s input on the POST Act to find a workable compromise, a new era of policing reform is sweeping through the city. Now, with the support of 38 council members – a veto-proof majority – and de Blasio, the POST Act is poised to become law whether the NYPD likes it or not. 

The NYPD, in a statement given to NY1, made plain that it still opposes the legislation. “To be clear, the bill, as currently proposed would literally require the NYPD to advertise on its website the covert means and equipment used by undercover officers who risk their lives every day,” the statement read. “No reasonable citizen of New York City would ever support that.”

Passage of the POST Act would be just one of the New York City-level policing reforms announced or proposed in the past month, and would follow a wave of statewide reforms passed last week. The POST Act would require the NYPD to submit information about the surveillance technology it uses, open it up to public comment, and have the police commissioner submit a surveillance impact and use policy report to the City Council. Essentially, it would shed light on the tech the NYPD uses. “Finally, after the POST Act (passes), we will have a requirement that the NYPD tell us what systems they’re purchasing so they can’t use them for years without any public pushback the way they have in the past,” Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told City & State. Cahn mentioned examples of NYPD surveillance tools including facial recognition – a technology that has been shown to have racial bias in identifying faces. 

But Cahn – who has been one of the leading advocates for the POST Act since 2017 – notes that the bill wouldn’t necessarily change anything about the way the police use that technology. “This is the weakest surveillance oversight legislation in the country,” he said. “And so we see this as just a first step, but an indispensable first step because we can't regulate these technologies until we know what's being used.” The next step, he said, would involve the council banning specific technology like facial recognition.

Some council members once effectively sought the NYPD’s consent to pass the POST Act, and now the body is ready to pass it without the NYPD’s blessing. Cahn said it’s the protests over the past month that have pushed the previously stalled reforms forward in a matter of days. “I think that just shows the enormous power of the public protests we've seen across the city in demonstrating the need for real reforms from City Hall and the NYPD,” he said.

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
20200803