NYC passes bill requiring police to disclose surveillance technology


NYPD Police officers listen as Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York President Pat Lynch and representatives from other NYPD and law enforcement unions holds a news conference at the Icahn Stadium parking lot on June 9, 2020 to address the “current anti-law enforcement environment.” in New York.

Timothy A. Clary | AFP | Getty Images

Members of the New York City Council voted Thursday to enact a bill that will require the police department to disclose how it uses technology to surveil the public.

The passage of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday he was prepared to sign into law, is another signal of the current police reform movement’s impact on the legislative agenda. The bill was first introduced in 2017 but has gained renewed momentum following the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was pinned to the ground by a police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. It passed by a vote of 44 to 6 and several other bills seeking to reform policing tactics and transparency also passed on Thursday. 

“There has been a groundswell of support because I think people have realized that the time is now,” the POST Act’s lead sponsor, Council Member Vanessa Gibson, said at a press conference Wednesday hosted by the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), which has supported the legislation.

The bill aims to hold the NYPD accountable for its use of surveillance technologies by requiring it to release information about how it uses such tools and what safeguards are in place to prevent them from being exploited. It would also create an annual oversight system to audit compliance with department policies.

Prior to the bill’s enactment, New Yorkers, like citizens in many parts of the U.S., have not had full access to information on how they’re being monitored by police departments. Researchers and advocates for privacy and racial justice told CNBC the lack of transparency makes it difficult to know what citizens could be up against. At a time when distrust of law enforcement has reached a boiling point following several documented deaths of Black people at the hands of police, some fear how their data could be captured and used against them, especially when participating in protests.

“Our ability to represent our clients, overwhelmingly people of color, is hindered by the clandestine use of surveillance against them, their families and their communities,” Jerome Greco, a public defender at the Legal Aid Society, said at Wednesday’s conference. “We cannot wage a zealous fight in court on their behalf if we do not even know there is something to fight over.”

Greco referenced a 2017 ruling by a Brooklyn judge that found police must obtain a warrant to track the cell phone of a criminal suspect. While he counted the ruling as a win, he said the group has still been unable to identify many past cases where the technology was used without a warrant.

In the absence of regulation, several tech companies have taken measures to limit how their tools can be used by police. IBM, Amazon and Microsoft all took steps back from selling their facial recognition technology to law enforcement, though they left open the possibility of reentering those relationships. Foursquare made a point of not sharing analytics related to the protests, CEO David Shim told CNBC.

Police opposition and national implications

New York is now the 14th city to adopt a law of this kind, which the American Civil Liberties Union calls “Community Control Over Police Surveillance” or CCOPS. The ACLU launched the initiative in 2016 to get cities to adopt laws that would increase transparency about citizen surveillance. Several California cities like San Francisco, Palo Alto and Oakland have previously adopted such laws as well as Yellow Springs, Ohio, Nashville and three cities in Massachusetts. More than a dozen more cities are working on similar legislation, according to the ACLU.

The NYPD has opposed the bill, saying it would endanger covert officers by requiring the department to disclose surveillance capabilities on its website. In a statement, a department spokesperson said, the bill “would achieve both transparency and public safety and safety for our most vulnerable officers, our undercover police officers” if it included “a minor change” about that disclosure. The NYPD said it addressed those concerns with city council but the final version of the bill does not reflect the changes they asked for in those discussions.

“The NYPD cannot support a law that seems to be designed to help criminals and terrorists thwart efforts to stop them and endanger brave officers,” the spokesperson said. “We are happy to continue these discussions, but only toward an outcome that does not threaten public safety.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, STOP Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn said the NYPD’s criticisms were overblown.

“I believe these are ludicrous claims,” he said. “They’ve never once explained how these alarmist scenarios would actually play out in reality and so I don’t think that these are serious objections. This is just the last cry of objection from an organization that is used to not actually being subject to anyone else’s oversight.”

Gibson emphasized at Wednesday’s press conference that the police commissioner would still have approval of the final language of the report detailing surveillance technology use.

“There is still control that the NYPD has, as some would argue, that that’s a problem in itself,” Gibson said. “We wanted to find a balance because we knew a lot of concerns, but we also realized that we had nothing on the books today.”

The passage of the law will impact America’s largest local police department, which could add pressure for similar measures in other cities and at the national level. Dozens of federal lawmakers have already been asking agency heads to disclose their surveillance of the protests. On Wednesday, more than 100 civil rights and civil liberties groups asked for action on “unconstitutional and dangerous use of surveillance by state, local and federal police officers against demonstrators protesting the murder of George Floyd” in a letter to top officials in the House of Representatives.

Gibson said Wednesday New York City’s legislation is “the floor and not the ceiling.”

“Across this nation there’s been a real crying call for more police accountability and transparency and this legislation, to me, is really a foundation,” she said. “It means it’s the beginning, family, and not the end of the NYPD to be honest with the public, with New Yorkers.”

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