The New York Civil Liberties Union today called on the NYPD to provide the public with basic details of its multi-million dollar plan to blanket Midtown with a computerized network of surveillance cameras and license plate readers – a massive expansion of the “Ring of Steel” surveillance system being developed in lower Manhattan.

“The NYPD is collecting massive amounts of personal information about law-abiding New Yorkers, with no hint of how it plans to protect individuals’ privacy,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “This is an invitation to abuse.”

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

Mayor Bloomberg on Sunday announced plans to expand the surveillance network to Midtown between 30th and 60th streets from river to river. He said $24 million in federal Homeland Security grants would help pay for the expansion.

Modeled after London’s often-criticized “Ring of Steel” surveillance network, the system, including its Midtown extension, is expected to cost the public about $124 million. But other than its price tag, little is known is known about the surveillance program.

“The NYPD must not spend vast amounts of public money blanketing downtown and Midtown Manhattan in surveillance cameras without any public discussion of its plans and without clear privacy protections,” Lieberman said. “Our elected lawmakers need to step in and subject this entire surveillance system to a thorough public review.”

In October 2007, the NYCLU filed formal requests under state and federal freedom of information laws with the NYPD and U.S. Department of Homeland Security seeking a range of documents concerning the surveillance system. The NYCLU received only a smattering of documents in response. In September 2008, the NYCLU sued the NYPD in State Supreme Court for refusing to disclose the requested documents. In June, it filed a federal lawsuit against DHS, seeking access to information on the surveillance system. Both lawsuits are pending.

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.