At a New York City Council hearing today, the New York Civil Liberties Union testified in favor of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which establishes a system of public oversight and input prior to NYPD implementation of surveillance technology. The NYCLU is responsible for revealing the NYPD’s use of military grade surveillance equipment on innocent New Yorkers and was a partner in drafting the bill, introduced in March.
“The NYPD uses invasive surveillance technology on the streets of New York all the time, but the public has very little idea what their police department is doing with these devices,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “It’s time to bring the NYPD out of the shadows by increasing transparency around these incredibly intrusive technologies.”
Introduced by Council Member Dan Garodnick and Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson, the POST Act requires the NYPD to issue an impact and use policy for each piece of surveillance technology it employs. The policy would have to include important information about each surveillance tool, including its description, capabilities, guidelines for use, security measures designed to protect any data it collects. The NYPD would also need to evaluate and explain the possible impacts of the technology on New Yorkers’ privacy.
Upon publication of a draft surveillance impact and use policy, the public would have 45 days to submit comments. The NYPD Commissioner will then consider the comments and provide a final version of the surveillance impact and use policy to the City Council, the mayor and the public. The bill would also empower the NYPD Inspector General to make sure the NYPD follows the policies and guidelines in place.
"In this era of hacks and data breaches, we must assure New Yorkers that our city is safeguarding the sensitive data it collects on residents,” said Council Member Dan Garodnick. “Moreover, as the Trump administration moves to expand surveillance, New Yorkers deserve to know what, if any, information could be shared by the NYPD with the federal government. The POST Act accomplishes both of these goals, while also building trust between communities and our police department, strengthening our democratic and progressive values, and yes – promoting public safety,"
“New Yorkers cannot abide by a system that forces us to choose between liberty and safety,” said Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson. “As Chair of the Committee on Public Safety, I strongly believe that public safety hinges on positive police/community relations. Under this administration, the police department has made great strides in repairing fractured relationships between communities of color and the NYPD. I believe that the Public Oversight in Surveillance Technology Act will bring transparency to police technology and is the next logical step in this effort.”
In its testimony, the NYCLU highlights two examples of invasive technologies that the NYPD tried to keep under wraps. One year ago, the NYCLU revealed that the NYPD owns and operates Stingrays – controversial devices that spy on cell phones nearby and that can be used to track location. In response to an NYCLU FOIL request, which was followed by an NYCLU lawsuit, the NYPD disclosed the use of Stingrays more than 1,000 times between 2008 and May of 2015 without a written policy and following a practice of obtaining only lower-level court orders rather than warrants. The department still refuses to reveal what models of Stingrays it uses or how much taxpayer money is used to purchase and maintain them. The NYCLU filed a lawsuit that is still pending to obtain that information.
The NYPD has been even more opaque about its use of X-ray vans. 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 about public health risks the vans’ may pose, the NYPD’s prior use of the vans, whether the department gets a warrant before it uses them and how long the NYPD holds the images that the vans capture.
“These technologies pose serious risks to our privacy and even our health, but keeping important information about them secret poses a threat to our democracy,” said NYCLU Legislative Counsel Rashida Richardson. “We must understand the impacts of this surveillance, especially on vulnerable New Yorkers.”
The NYCLU’s contributions to the POST Act are among the organization’s work to increase NYPD transparency and accountability. The NYCLU’s testimony also urges the City Council to pass the Right to Know Act, which would require officers to identify themselves at the beginning of a stop and explain a person’s right to refuse consent for certain searches. This push for police accountability taken on added significance under President Trump, whose Department of Justice has made it clear it supports a tough-on-crime approach that raises fears, particularly among vulnerable communities, about the tools police use and the policies that govern their use.
“The City Council must go beyond promoting transparency and oversight and tackle the policing practices that create mistrust in the first place,” said NYCLU Lead Policy Counsel Michael Sisitzky. “The Right to Know Act, along with the POST Act will increase public confidence in the NYPD.”