Most New Yorkers have seen the mysterious lights on our bridges and tunnels, the strobes that go off around many toll plazas. What few realize is that these lights have nothing to do with tolls or traffic, they’re for surveillance. These lights are part of the automated license plate readers that ring Manhattan, tracking the real-time location of cars and drivers. If this dragnet were just used by the NYPD to surveil our city, it would still raise privacy concerns, but the reality is far more alarming.
As is often the case with NYPD surveillance, the data is shared outside our city. Instead, New Yorkers’ real-time location data is handed-over to the private firm Vigilant Solutions. But it doesn’t stop there. Earlier this year, activists were horrified to learn that Vigilant Solutions is going beyond sharing this data with local police departments…it shares NYPD data with ICE. That’s right: New York City cameras, paid for with New York City tax dollars, are helping ICE deport immigrant New Yorkers.
As is so often the case, these law enforcement tools have been turned against our marginalized communities, including immigrant New Yorkers and New Yorkers of color. Back in the 1960s, it was the FBI’s COINTELPRO that carried out surveillance of civil rights leaders, plotting to “neutralize” King and other civil rights leaders. Today, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies still talk of the “threat” posed by so-called “black identity extremists”, showing just how has changed in the subsequent decades.
Today, police still use force more frequently against African-Americans, including disproportionate police killings of people of color. Sadly, New York is no outlier. The NYPD disproportionately stops and arrests African-Americans for everything from marijuana possession to fare evasion. From the low-tech to the hi-tech, the pattern is clear: the NYPD targets communities of color.
New York’s Muslim communities have also been at the top of the NYPD target list. In 2011, the AP won a Pulitzer for blowing the lid off the NYPD program to systemically map-out Muslim New Yorkers, treating them as a threat for nothing more than their faith. Some saw the program as a model for President Trump’s campaign endorsement of a Muslim registry.
The Demographics Unit persisted for years after it was first discovered, but when the program was disbanded, it was hardly the end of the story. According to the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD’s most recent report on the topic, over 95% of NYPD intelligence investigations target Muslim New Yorkers. This, at a time when the vast majority of extremist violence comes from white nationalist and right wing extremists (per the ADL). This mismatch between our policing and the real threat is yet another reason why better oversight is needed.
The exceptional thing about license plate readers isn’t that the information is being shared…that’s common. The exceptional thing is that we know about it. It’s just one in a growing list of military-grade spy tools that collect information on New Yorkers. But as the number and power of these tools has grown, our City’s oversight has failed to catch up. Under a loophole in City law, the NYPD can buy these tools with private donations and federal grants without ever telling the lawmakers who are elected to oversee them. It’s wrong, and it needs to stop.
A legislative fix is needed, which is why advocates and lawmakers at City Hall are pushing for the POST Act, a bill that would end the surveillance loophole and require the NYPD to report all of the spy tools it purchases. Our police must tell us what steps they are taking to prevent this information from falling into the wrong hands.
These disclosures are common, required by cities across the country, and even made by the FBI. The NYPD has complained that it can’t meet the burden of complying with the POST Act, but if they want to use the same powerful tools as the FBI, they should have to live up to the same disclosure requirements set by Congress.
By enacting the Post Act, we can help the communities most- impacted by these technologies better understand how surveillance is used and how the data is shared. We must act now. Without these protections, the NYPD will make a lie out of New York’s promise of a “Sanctuary City.”
Albert Cahn is the Legal Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, New York, a leading Muslim civil rights organization.
Brandon Hicks is a National Organizer with the National Action Network