Inspector general: Digidog dodged disclosures

A report found that the NYPD is still not complying with a four-year old surveillance technology oversight law.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams introduced the four-legged robot known as Digidog last year.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams introduced the four-legged robot known as Digidog last year. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Maybe you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

The New York City Police Department is still not adequately complying with a four-year-old surveillance technology oversight law, according to a new report from the New York City Department of Investigation’s Office of Inspector General for the NYPD.

As the office reported in a 2022 review, it found that the NYPD lumped together distinct technology tools – for example, the four-legged robot known as Digidog – under the same impact and use policies, a practice the inspector general’s office believes risks shielding those individual tools from public scrutiny and oversight.

The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, passed by the City Council in 2020 over objections from the department, was intended to provide oversight and a mechanism for public scrutiny of how the NYPD’s expanding arsenal of surveillance technologies are being used. The law doesn’t in any way limit what kind of technology the NYPD can use, but it requires that when the NYPD introduces a new technology, it must release a draft impact and use policy describing exactly what the tool is capable of and how it will be used. A public comment period to weigh in on that policy is also required, but the department isn’t obligated to incorporate all of that public feedback into its final use policy.

The reintroduction of the four-legged robot under Mayor Eric Adams last year, along with the launch of new tools like the autonomous robot known as K5 that briefly patrolled the Times Square subway station, reignited concerns from privacy advocates about the NYPD’s approach to complying with the POST Act. As the new report found, the NYPD didn’t introduce a new use policy for the four-legged robot – as the office believes it should have – but grouped it under an existing policy for situational awareness cameras.

“NYPD has used grouping in an overly expansive manner by continuing to include Digidog within the existing ‘Situational Awareness Cameras’ (impact and use policy), rather than issuing an individual IUP, effectively undermining goals of the POST Act and limiting public transparency with respect to Digidog,” the report found.

And while the inspector general’s office found that it is sometimes appropriate for the NYPD to group new tools under single existing impact and use policy when the technologies are “substantially similar” – such as grouping the K5 robot under the policy for situational awareness cameras – the report found that some of those existing policies don’t include all the information required by the POST Act.

“Today’s report makes clear that the NYPD continues to violate the POST Act, depriving New Yorkers of transparency and limiting their ability to provide feedback on the invasive technologies that City Hall continues to deploy in careless, rapid succession,” Jerome Greco, supervising attorney of the Digital Forensics Unit at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement.

Even after the 2022 report from the inspector general made similar findings, the NYPD maintained that it was complying with the POST Act because their introduction of new tools merely constituted “enhancements” of technologies already covered in existing use policies. When Adams announced his intention to pilot gun detection scanners in the subways earlier this year, however, the NYPD published a new draft impact and use policy for “electromagnetic weapons detection systems,” triggering a 45-day public comment period.

“We thank (the Department of Investigation) for its report,” an NYPD spokesperson wrote in an email in response to a request for comment on the report. “Protecting public safety is this administration’s top priority, and a key part of that mission is using technology to help keep New Yorkers safe. We are committed to doing so consistent with the law.  We will carefully review DOI’s conclusions and recommendations.”