Big Brother is watching. That statement is not an exaggeration — anymore. When Ed Snowden exposed classified documents, most people were astonished to find out just how much access the National Security Agency has to email and phone records of everyday citizens. Since Snowden leaked the documents, an ongoing debate about surveillance and privacy has been the background music to civil liberties. Even local communities where technology permits the police to indiscriminately gather data are talking.
As technology changes the balance between the citizen and state, the government and law enforcement increases their access to our privacy activities, and civil liberties are threatened.
Everything from constitutional rights, crime-fighting, and national security have been invoked in the legal doctrines post 9/11. Law enforcement has access to electronic records which even includes the ubiquitous cellphone.
Following 9/11 New York City rushed to develop the most sophisticated networks in America. Since then the NYPD has expanded the use and permit local precinct commanders to use the high-tech tools which were meant for counterterrorism measures.
Paul Browne, an NYPD spokesman, said, “The technology was engineered with a sense of urgency following 9/11 but has applications to crime fighting.”
New York is one of few large American cities which developed broad surveillance networks in recent years. Using federal funding the city’s web was modeled after London’s “Ring of Steel,” the most extensive surveillance camera network globally.
Despite being built with Homeland Security grants, there are no legal restrictions against using the surveillance network to fight traditional crime. The system’s scope and sophistication worry many people.
“There is no outside monitoring of the system at all,” points out Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of New York’s Civil Liberties Union. The group filed a lawsuit claiming the police violated religious freedoms by using the surveillance apparatus to monitor Muslim communities.
Domain Awareness System
The NYPD has introduced “Domain Awareness System,” DAS, which was developed in partnership with Microsoft and funded by U.S. Homeland Security grants.
Coming to over $230 million, the system’s software connects the NYPD’s resources such as surveillance cameras, license scanners, and radiation sensors to 911 calls, criminal records, and other city databases. The information is displayed on a user-friendly interface. Access was initially limited to desktops located in select precinct houses, but now mobile terminals are in each of the city’s 76 precincts, patrol cars and even beat cops with a cell phone or tablet.
License Plate Readers
Deploying over one hundred license plate readers on city bridges, tunnels and traffic lights, every car that moves into, or out of, the city is captured photographically. The city’s plans call for an increase in the readers to over 200 with another 100 being attached to squad cars’ hoods. According to Browne NYPD’s database contains information on more than 16 million license plates.
Civil liberties attorneys see the system as tantamount to bypassing the Fourth Amendment.
“An inclusive license-plate reader is the same thing as attaching police GPS devices to civilian vehicles as the system permits law enforcement to follow movements citywide,” said a spokesman for the NYCLU. “The public would never stand for routine GPS tracking by law enforcement, but this system is pushing us that direction.”