The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for refusing to disclose public records about the massive surveillance system it is helping the NYPD develop in downtown Manhattan.

The planned system, called the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, will establish a network of thousands of surveillance cameras to monitor and track vehicles and pedestrians south of Canal Street. The system will allow the NYPD, and possibly the federal government, to create a computerized database on the movement and whereabouts of millions of law-abiding New Yorkers.

Modeled after London’s often-criticized Ring of Steel surveillance network, the system is expected to cost about $100 million. But other than its price tag, little is known is known about new surveillance program.

“The Department of Homeland Security is helping the NYPD conduct blanket surveillance of millions of law-abiding New Yorkers, but it refuses to share even basic details about this costly project,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “A system of this scope, expense and intrusiveness cannot be carried out in secret. The public has a right to this information.”

In October 2007, the NYCLU filed a formal request under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seeking a range of documents concerning the planned surveillance system. Since then, and following a second FOIA request and numerous administrative appeals, the DHS has turned over only a few responsive records. Most of the handful of documents it produced was heavily redacted.

“A government surveillance system that tracks the movements of millions of law-abiding New Yorkers requires a full, informed public discussion,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Matt Faiella, lead counsel on the case. “Since the DHS chooses to embrace government secrecy, we have no option but to ask the courts to force the federal government to disclose information to the public.”

The NYCLU is seeking details about:

  • the scope of information to be collected about law-abiding people;
  • how the police and federal government would use the information and who they’ll share it with;
  • how long the information would be stored;
  • any privacy protections within the system;
  • which private surveillance systems, such as bank security cameras, will be part of the system; and
  • how much money the federal government intends to spend on the system.

In September 2008, the NYCLU sued the NYPD in State Supreme Court to gain access to documents on the surveillance system after the police department had largely ignored a freedom of information request filed in October 2007. That lawsuit is ongoing.