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New Bill Holds NYPD Accountable for Surveillance Technology

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Council Member Dan Garodnick and Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson introduced legislation today establishing, for the first time, a system of public oversight and input prior to NYPD implementation of surveillance technology. The New York Civil Liberties Union was responsible for revealing the NYPD’s use of military grade surveillance equipment including Stingrays on innocent New Yorkers and was a partner in drafting the bill.

“Public awareness of how the NYPD conducts intrusive surveillance, especially the impacts on vulnerable New Yorkers, is critical to democracy,” said NYCLU Legislative Counsel, Rashida Richardson. “For too long the NYPD has been using technology that spies on cell phones, sees through buildings and follows your car under a shroud of secrecy, and the bill is a significant step out of the dark ages.”

The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (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, and whether other entities or government agencies have access to information it gathers. 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.

The POST Act is all the more critical under President Trump, who has fueled fears that the federal government will target certain communities including immigrants, Muslims and protesters for increased surveillance.

The NYCLU has been at the forefront of bringing the NYPD’s use of surveillance technology into the light for many years. More than a decade ago, the NYCLU documented the rapid proliferation of both public and private surveillance cameras in New York City.

One year ago, the NYCLU revealed that the NYPD owns and operates Stingrays—controversial surveillance 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 it used 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.

“New Yorkers shouldn’t have to wait for the NYPD to be dragged into court before they learn basic information about invasive technology the department uses to spy on people,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “This bill represents an important way to increase transparency and hold the NYPD accountable.”

In 2015, the NYCLU learned and revealed details of a multi-year contract that gives the NYPD access to the nationwide database of license plate reader data owned by the company Vigilant Solutions. The database allows the NYPD to follow cars across the country, from New York to Miami to Los Angeles.

The NYCLU also sounded the alarm about the NYPD’s use of x-ray vans, military-grade surveillance equipment which utilizes x-ray radiation to image the inside of cars and buildings.

As part of a nationwide initiative last year, groups in 17 cities across the country, including the NYCLU, supported efforts to give city councils more oversight over surveillance technologies used by local police departments.

Council Member Garodnick will host a Facebook Live event with the NYCLU’s Richardson on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. The pair will answer questions about the POST Act and the NYPD’s use of surveillance technology in this new era of threats to civil liberties.

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