Council members want NYPD to tell public what spy tools it uses

The police are watching you.

It’s no secret that surveillance cameras are everywhere. The corner bodega has them. Your apartment building has them. Subways stations, schools, office towers have them.

The NYPD looks for surveillance video whenever a crime is committed. However, the cops employ a host of surveillance technology to safeguard the city and nab criminals.

Two city council members want the public to know exactly what the NYPD has in its arsenal of surveillance equipment.

Council members Dan Garodnick of Manhattan and Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx announced Wednesday that they’ve drafted a bill dubbed the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act to require law enforcement to disclose what surveillance technologies it uses. The bill would also allow lawmakers and New Yorkers to have a greater say in how these technologies should be used.

During an afternoon news conference, NYPD Commissioner for Legal Matters Larry Byrne criticized the proposal as a measure that would jeopardize the department’s counter-terrorism efforts, according to local news media. The department didn’t respond to Metro’s request for comment on the bill.

Garodnick said he was aware of the criticism.

“They argued that there is no such requirement of other law enforcement agencies in the country,” he told Metro. “I cited a half-dozen examples of similar requirements from Santa Clara, California, to Seattle, to the federal government.”

Like law enforcement agencies nationwide, the NYPD has a wide array of surveillance technology at its disposal.

The NYPD has used Stingray cell phone tracker more than 1,000 times since 2008, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. The device allows police to spy on cell phones in the area by mimicking a cell tower.

Armed with a Stingray, investigators can pinpoint the location of a cellphone user, and in some cases, collect the phone numbers that the person has dialed. Police can use the device to conduct surveillance without the involvement or cellphone companies.

The department uses X-ray vans that allow investigators to peer through walls and into vehicles. Radiation gives the vans its X-ray vision. The NYPD employs the vans, called Z Backscatter Vans, as counter-terrorism equipment, according to news reports.

The NYPD also maintains a Domain Awareness System, which gathers data from such sources as private surveillance cameras, license plate readers and MetroCard swipes. The system was developed in a partnership with Microsoft Corp.

The council members’ bill makes no attempt to require the NYPD to disclose any specific information collected by the technology.

“This is a sensible way to ensure public confidence in law enforcement while not interfering with the police department’s operations,” Garodnick said.

Rashida Richardson, legislative counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the transparency that the bill would require is “critical to democracy.”

“For too long the NYPD has used technology that spies on cell phones, sees through buildings and follows your car under a shroud of secrecy, and this bill is a significant step out of the dark ages.”