The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court challenging the NYPD’s refusal to disclose information about its plan to create a massive surveillance network in downtown Manhattan.

The plan, called the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, would establish a network of 3,000 public and private surveillance cameras to monitor and track vehicles and pedestrians south of Canal Street. The system would allow the Department to maintain a 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. The NYPD developed the surveillance plan without seeking any public input.

“The NYPD is planning blanket surveillance of millions of law-abiding New Yorkers, but it refuses to disclose even the simplest details of this costly proposal,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “A plan of this scope, expense and intrusiveness demands robust public debate and legislative oversight. The public has a right to this information.”

In October 2007, the NYCLU served the NYPD with a formal legal request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law to turn over documents pertaining to the planned surveillance system. After months of stalling, the NYPD gave only 91 pages of documents that came nowhere near satisfying the NYCLU’s request. Given the plan’s magnitude, the Department must have thousands of documents that it is withholding from the public. After exhausting its administrative appeals, the NYCLU is now forced to sue for the information.

“This proposed system, which would result in the police tracking millions of law-abiding New Yorkers, has profound privacy implications,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director and lead counsel on the case. “Since the police department continues to embrace government secrecy, we are left with no option but to turn to the courts to force public disclosure about what the NYPD plans to do with all of this information about innocent people.”

The NYCLU is seeking details about:

  • the scope of information to be collected about law-abiding people;
  • how the police intend to use the information;
  • who the police will share the information with;
  • how long the police will store the information before destroying it;
  • any privacy protections included in the system;
  • which private surveillance systems, such as bank security cameras, will become part of the system;
  • assessments of the Ring of Steel system, upon which the plan is modeled;
  • and the extent to which city funds are being used to create the system.

Last month, news reports disclosed a further plan (“Operation Sentinel”) to photograph and track every vehicle entering Manhattan and then keep data on each vehicle in a police database.

“The public and our elected officials can’t keep reading about these programs in the paper,” Lieberman said. “Government secrecy is completely at odds with government accountability. Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

NYCLU staff attorney Matt Faiella is co-counsel on the case.