NEW YORK, N.Y. (March 8, 2017) – The New York City Council will consider an ordinance that would take the first step toward limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that violate basic privacy rights and feed into a broader national surveillance state.
Council member Dan Garodnick introduced the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act (POST Act) today at noon. The ordinance would require the New York Police Department to disclose information about all of its surveillance technology such as stingray devices, automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), cameras and drones. Under the proposed rules, the NYPD would be required to issue an “impact and use policy” for each type of surveillance technology it uses now or acquires in the future, creating an environment of transparency currently lacking in the department. Disclosure would include important information about each surveillance tool, including, but not limited to, its description, capabilities, guidelines for use, security measures designed to protect any data it collects, and whether other entities have access to information it gathers.
“New Yorkers should have the opportunity to weigh in on what surveillance measures are being taken in their name.” Garodnick said. “As the Trump administration moves to expand surveillance, New Yorkers deserve to know what, if any, sensitive data could potentially be shared by the NYPD with the federal government. This legislation is an important step towards reaching this goal.”
Due to city charter limitations, the council cannot exercise direct control over the NYPD. In an effort to address the issue of surveillance in the city, activists have crafted the POST Act to maximize transparency and provide full opportunity for public input.
“If the NYPD seeks to acquire a tech that is unacceptable or to use it in an unacceptable way, this bill will give us everything we need to politically pressure the Mayor to force NYPD to discontinue its use,” ACLU National Advocacy and Policy Counsel Chad Marlow said.
Introduction of the POST Act is part of a nationwide #TakeCTRL initiative to address surveillance at the local level.
Local police have access to a mind-boggling array of surveillance equipment. As it now stands, many law enforcement agencies can obtain this high-tech, extremely intrusive technology without any approval or oversight. The federal government often provides grants and other funding sources for this spy-gear, meaning local governments can keep their purchase “off the books.” Members of the community, and even elected officials, often don’t know their police departments possess technology capable of sweeping up electronic data, phone calls and location information.
In some cases, the feds even require law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, wrapping surveillance programs in an even darker shroud of secrecy. We know for a fact the FBI required the Baltimore Police Department to sign such an agreement when it obtained stingray technology. This policy of nondisclosure even extends to the courtroom, with the feds actually instructing prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions about the department’s use of stingray devices on the stand during a trial, citing a federal nondisclosure agreement.
As privacysos.org put it, “The FBI would rather police officers and prosecutors let ‘criminals’ go than face a possible scenario where a defendant brings a Fourth Amendment challenge to warrantless stingray spying.”
The POST Act would prevent local police from obtaining technology without public knowledge, and would provide an avenue for concerned residents to oppose and stop the purchase of spy gear.
Impact on Federal Programs
Information collected by local law enforcement undoubtedly ends up in federal databases. The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, local data collection using ALPRs, stingrays and other technologies create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans, and obtain and store information on millions of Americans, including phone calls, emails, web browsing history and text messages, all with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.
According to its website (archived link), the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant.
The federal government encourages and funds surveillance technology including ALPRs, drones and stingrays at the state and local level across the U.S.. In return, it undoubtedly gains access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By requiring approval and placing the acquisition of spy gear in the public spotlight, local governments can take the first step toward limiting the surveillance state at both the local and national level.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.
The POST Act takes an important first step toward limiting the use of surveillance technology in the city.