Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press. Views expressed here are his own.
New York City’s Mayor is a big fan of new surveillance and automated law enforcement technologies, which he says can be deployed with transparency. But a recent assessment by the police department’s inspector general suggests the City’s use of such technologies is anything but transparent, despite a law that requires public disclosures.
Speaking at a press conference in Times Square alongside New York City Police Department (NYPD) officials, Mayor Eric Adams helped unveil three new devices in the NYPD’s arsenal, including a K5 Autonomous Security Robot; the “Digidog,” a robot designed to enter dangerous situations; and StarChase, a gun used to shoot a projectile containing a GPS tracking device at fleeing vehicles.
“The three we are mentioning today is only the beginning,” said Adams, a retired police captain who won office in 2021 in part on promises to reduce crime. He said the City was “scanning the globe” for new law enforcement technologies. “This is the beginning of a series of rollouts we are going to do to show how public safety has transformed itself.”
“I’m a computer geek,” Adams said. “I believe that technology is here. We cannot be afraid of it.”
Indeed, Adams has shown a high degree of enthusiasm for a variety of surveillance and law enforcement technologies since assuming office:
- Last year, Adams attended a demonstration of drones equipped with thermal cameras, night vision and sensors, and reportedly directed his Chief Technology Officer (and former NYPD CIO) Matthew Fraser to begin talks with the manufacturers.
- Adams has explored a “dramatic expansion” of the City’s use of facial recognition technology, including using it to identify individuals on social media. “If you’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — no matter what, they can see and identify who you are without violating the rights of people,” Adams said last February.
- It’s not just cameras and social media where he sees the potential of facial recognition. Adams vaunted equipping Neighborhood Safety Teams with uniforms featuring “new technology” to put facial recognition capabilities on an officer’s person.
During the press conference, the Mayor referenced the City’s sprawling surveillance camera network. “There are new versions of that technology that artificial intelligence is allowing us to go even further, to properly prevent crimes and apprehend those that are responsible for the crimes.”
Adams portrayed himself as more aggressive on the use of police technology than his predecessor. “The prior administration did not have a Mayor that is a computer geek and that was willing to go where others are not willing to go to keep this city safe. I made it clear on the campaign trail, I am going to use technology with transparency to keep this City safe.”
But according to the Ninth Annual Report of the Office of the Inspector General for the New York City Police Department (OIG), released at the end of last month, NYPD is hardly transparent in its use of surveillance technology.
OIG is required by the 2020 Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act to prepare annual audits of NYPD surveillance technologies, including assessing whether NYPD’s use of such technologies is in compliance with the department’s published impact and use policies, and to describe “any known or reasonably suspected violations” of such policies.
But OIG found that rather than listing policies for each technology, NYPD groups technologies “contrary to the intent of the POST Act.” And, OIG said that NYPD rejected more than 93% of its recommendations with regard to the POST Act. The rejected recommendations included:
- That NYPD should issue impact and use policy statements (IUP) for each individual surveillance technology in its arsenal;
- That for each IUP, NYPD should name what external agencies “with which the Department can share surveillance data” and that it should track when it provides data to them;
- That each IUP should include “the potential disparate impacts on protected groups of the use and deployment of the surveillance technology itself,” and that the health & safety sections of IUPs should “include any safety hazards that are identifiable on the basis of existing research, manufacturer warnings, or evaluations by experts in the field”; and
- That “NYPD should convene a working group of NYPD personnel, relevant City Council members or their appointees, and representatives from select advocacy groups and community organizations who have expertise in surveillance technologies” in order to make recommendations on IUPs.
NYPD even rejected the recommendation that it should provide data access and retention policies included in contracts with vendors who supply surveillance technologies, and did not answer a letter requesting the department provide “an itemized list of surveillance technologies.”
“This report helps support what advocates have said for years: that the NYPD is violating the POST Act,” said Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, in a statement in response to the release of the OIG report. “The Mayor and Council cannot continue to allow for the police to flagrantly disregard the law. They must implement new measures to hold the NYPD accountable for these violations and to protect New Yorkers from its lawless surveillance.”
Following today’s press conference, New York Legal Aid Society spokesperson Redmond Haskins said the announcements were “another example of the NYPD’s violation of basic norms of transparency and accountability by rolling out these technologies without providing the public a meaningful opportunity to raise concerns.” Like Fox Cahn, Haskins pointed to the department’s failure to comply with the POST Act. “The City Council passed the POST Act two years ago to address this very issue, yet the NYPD has once again failed to engage its requirements of public comment before further expanding surveillance technology.”
With a Mayor that appears to still consider himself a member of the police department, only the City Council might be expected to bring such accountability. But NYPD appears to be skilled at operating outside the Council’s purview. At the press conference, a police official noted that the technologies on display cost $750,000, but that the department used “forfeiture money” to buy them, meaning the new robots were likely purchased with money available to NYPD outside of the typical City Council appropriations process.
Adams, who took his first three paychecks in cryptocurrency, may indeed be “willing to go where others are not willing to go” when it comes to surveillance technology. But even as he trots out his new robots, New York’s techno-authoritarian mayor may soon find himself under additional scrutiny.
“I promise that if there is a series of new technologies, there’s going to be a series of new lawsuits,” Fox Cahn told WNYC/Gothamist reporter Samantha Max. “The mayor doesn’t get to rewrite the Constitution simply because it’s inconvenient.”
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.