NYPD Unlawfully Hiding X-Ray Van Use in City Neighborhoods, NYCLU Argues

October 13, 2015 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union is filing a motion for leave to file an amicus brief today, urging the Appellate Division, First Department to uphold a lower court’s decision requiring the NYPD to release information on its use of Z Backscatter Vans, otherwise known as x-ray vans.

“People should be informed if military grade x-ray vans are damaging their health with radiation or peering inside their homes or cars,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “New Yorkers have a right to protect their health, welfare and privacy.”

The military-grade surveillance equipment, which utilizes x-ray radiation to image the inside of cars and buildings, is used to search for roadside bombs in Afghanistan. The NYPD has largely refused to disclose anything about how it uses x-ray vans on the streets of New York. The department denied a Freedom of Information Law request by an investigative journalist at ProPublica asking for records revealing the vans’ public health risks, the NYPD’s prior use of the vans, whether the department gets a warrant before it uses them or how long the NYPD holds on to images the vans capture. The NYPD also won’t say how much the x-ray vans in total are costing taxpayers, though reportedly the NYPD is shelling out between $729,000 and $825,000 for each unit.

The x-ray vans are one in a number of surveillance technologies, including Stingrays, imported from the battlefield to New York’s neighborhoods. These technologies make mass surveillance significantly easier for the police while the public remains in the dark about how they are used.

In ordering the NYPD to produce records related to x-ray vans in Grabell v. the New York Police Department, the trial court found that the NYPD did not show how disclosing information about these x-ray vans might compromise investigations. The NYPD’s refusal to disclose information is further undercut by the fact that other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, have already revealed the same types of information about similar technology.

“Fair policing requires the NYPD to be willing to tell New Yorkers when it is using technologies that significantly intrude on their privacy,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “The NYPD is out of step with the growing recognition that public awareness of how law enforcement conducts surveillance is important for democracy.”

The Brennan Center for Justice joined the NYCLU on the motion.