Police surveillance in New York City

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Sign which says Area is under NYPD Video Surveillance
NYPD surveillance disclosure sign in lower Manhattan.

Police surveillance of New York City is the active monitoring of the public conducted by the New York City Police Department, or NYPD in the United States.[1]

Historically, surveillance has been used by the NYPD for a range of purposes, including against crime,[2] counter-terrorism,[3] and also for nefarious or controversial subjects such as stealing drugs to resell them[4] or monitoring entire ethnic[5] and religious[6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13] groups.

Subsequent to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the New York City Police Department developed a large and sophisticated array of surveillance technologies, generating large collections of data including billions of license plate readings and weeks of security footage from thousands of cameras. This data is now used in the department's day-to-day operations, from counter-terrorism investigations to resolving domestic violence complaints. The system consists of an interconnected web of CCTV cameras, license plate readers, physical sensors, machine learning software, data analytics dashboards, and mobile apps.[1]

Now centered around the Microsoft-built Domain Awareness System, the NYPD surveillance infrastructure has cost hundreds of millions of US dollars to produce and maintain. Many of its core components are being sold to or emulated by policing departments across the world.[1]

The NYPD has credited surveillance systems as preventing numerous terrorist attacks on the city.[3]


The NYPD has been involved in numerous surveillance activities of NYC throughout its history.

Black Panthers and the Handschu Agreement[edit]

image of group of people meeting
Image from Museum of the City of New York of the Young Lords

Between the 1950's and 1970's, the NYPD conducted extensive surveillance on the Black Panther Party, Nation of Islam, and the Young Lords, and other individuals of interest. The surveillance was conducted by the then anti-communist division known as "The Red Squad", which has since become the more general purpose "Intelligence Division".[14]

In 1969, twenty one members of the Black Panthers were indicted on charges of planning bombings on police and civilian targets.[15] The police were found to have been conducting comprehensive surveillance of the group, and after only ninety minutes all defendants were acquitted.[15] The Handschu agreement was made following a class action lawsuit on the behalf of the defendants, which regulates the capacity for police surveillance.[15]

CompStat and the Dropping Crime Rate[edit]

In the early 1990's, then deputy police commissioner Jack Maple designed and implemented the CompStat crime statistics system. According to an interview Jack Maple gave to Chris Mitchell, the system was designed to bring greater equity to policing in the city by attending to crimes which affected people of all socioeconomic backgrounds including previously ignored poor New Yorkers.[16]

Also at this time, the Dirty thirty (NYPD) police scandal was unfolding in Harlem, which involved illegal search and seizures of suspected and known drug dealers and their homes.[4]


image of NYPD owned and operated CCTV cameras on a lightpole
NYPD CCTV surveillance cameras used by the Domain Awareness System

Domain awareness system[edit]

The NYPD uses the Domain Awareness System (DAS) to perform surveillance across New York City - the system being composed of numerous physical and software components, including over 9,000 video cameras around New York City.[1] This surveillance is conducted on all people within range of sensors including people walking past security cameras or driving past license plate readers, it is not restricted to suspected criminals or terrorists.[1] Additionally, individuals may be tracked across the country through nation-wide sensor systems.[17] Data collected from the DAS is retained for varying amounts of time depending on the type of data, some records being retained for a minimum of five years.[18]

In 2014, speed cameras were introduced into 20 school zones within the five boroughs.[19] Since July 2019, 750 school zones have speed cameras operating between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M.[20]

Since 2011, NYPD has a dedicated unit of officers using facial recognition technology to compare images taken from DAS with photos like mug shots. In 2015, the juvenile database was integrated into the same system, and facial recognition has been used to compare images from crime scenes with its collection of juvenile mug shots.[21]

Surveillance of ethnic and religious groups[edit]

In 2001 the NYPD established a secret program (known as the Demographics Unit, and later the Zone Assessment Unit) to surveil American Muslim daily life throughout New York City and the nation.[6][8] The Demographics Unit was tasked with monitoring 28 "ancestries of interest, ranging from Arab ethnicities like Palestinian and Syrian to heavily Muslim populations from former Soviet states such as Chechnya and Uzbekistan to Black American Muslims".[7][9][13]

in August 2012, the Chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division, Lt. Paul Galati admitted during sworn testimony that in the six years of his tenure, the unit tasked with monitoring American Muslim life had not yielded a single criminal lead.[7]

The Moroccan Initiative was a similar ethnicity-based surveillance program of Moroccan Americans following the 2004 Madrid train bombings.[5]

The Intelligence Division units that were engaged in the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program include its Demographics Unit, renamed the Zone Assessment Unit (now disbanded); the Intelligence Analysis Unit; the Cyber Intelligence Unit; and the Terrorist Interdiction Unit.[12] In 2017, The Daily Beast reported that the NYPD continues to perform surveillance on the Muslim community in NYC.[11]

The New York Times reported in 2013 that CIA officers were embedded in the NYPD in the decade after September 11 attacks, and those officers were involved in nationwide surveillance operations.

Undercover investigations of activists and protestors[edit]

image of a crowd of people filling the street in protest
Protest of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City

Judge Charles S. Haight ruled in 2003 that The NYPD issued a request to eliminate all rules related to the Handshu agreement, but that relaxed rules would be reasonable and comparable to similarly relaxed regulations adopted by FBI in 2002. He amended his ruling to add these relaxed rules into a court order stating that the "NYPD is in need of discipline,[22] following interrogation of anti-war demonstrators by the NYPD where the activists were required to fill out a "Demonstration Debriefing Form" which asked about individual ideologies such as their opinions on Israel and their political affiliation which was then entered into a database.[23] Following this judgement, police no longer required "specific information about criminal activity" to surveil a political or religious gathering, and instead only needed to show "A law enforcement purpose".[24]

Videotapes recorded between 2004 and 2005 revealed NYPD officers posing as activists to surveil at least seven Iraq War protest events, including wearing of political pins and participating in mock arrests by riot police.[25] Prior to the 2004 Republican National Convention New York police broadly spied on people planning protests during the convention, and sent undercover officers nationwide to infiltrate various grass-roots political groups. Officials with the city and the Police Department defended their tactics, saying they needed to ferret out potential terrorists and protesters who intended to act violently or to commit vandalism.[26]

In January 2019, NYPD e-mail messages were released which indicated surveillance of activists within the Black lives matter protests. These e-mails included references to the activists being "idiots" and "ninjas".[27][28][29]

Following an internal investigation on compliance to the Handschu agreement in 2016, the NYPD inspector general found that in the cases reviewed both NYPD investigations and their use of informants and undercover officers continued after approval expired.[10]

Stop and Frisk[edit]

The tactic of "Stop and Frisk" increased dramatically in 2008 to over half a million stops, 88% of which did not result in any fine or conviction, peaking in 2011 to 685,724 stops, again with 88% resulting in no conviction. On average, from 2002 to 2013, the number of individuals stopped without any convictions was 87.6%.[30]

Stop and frisk became the subject of a Racial profiling controversy, in part because of the large majority of people of color who were stopped - in 2011, 91% of stops were performed on Black and Latino New Yorkers.[2]

Cellphone tracking[edit]

The NYPD has employs a number of cellphone surveillance strategies including stingray phone trackers[27][28][29] and cell tower dumps.[31]

an Image of a Black Lives matter protest, including a person holding a sign which says "Black out police violence"
The NYPD surveilled activists in the Black Lives Matter movement.[32][33][29]

in 2014 the international business times reported that the NYPD conducted cellphone tower dumps in response to unknown individuals raising a white flag on top of the Brooklyn Bridge.[31] Tower dumps give lists of all phone numbers which were near a cell tower at a given time.[34]

According to the NYCLU "the NYPD disclosed the use of Stingrays more than 1,000 times between 2008 and May of 2015 without a written policy and following a practice of obtaining only lower-level court orders rather than warrants", and that they "refuse to reveal what models of Stingrays [used] or how much taxpayer money is used to purchase and maintain them."[35] In January 2019, a judge ordered that the NYPD must officially disclose if Stingray phone tracker was used by the NYPD to monitor activists cellphone communications.[36]

Gang databases[edit]

The NYPD operates a computer database of suspected gang members called the "criminal group database”[37], which in February of 2019 contained over 42,000 individuals[38] before shrinking to 18,000 in June of 2019 where it now fluctuates due to thousands of names being added and removed[39] . 1.1% of the individuals in the database are white, 66% are black, and 31.7% are latino[39]. The Legal Aid Society created a website for individuals to conduct a FOIL request to see if they are in the database, the NYPD has rejected all FOIL requests on this subject.[40][38] Being in this database affects treatment within the court system including the severity of charges leveled against a defendant.[37]

Many criteria can lead to an individual being identified as a gang member, including admitting to being in a gang, being identified by two reliable sources within a gang, or be seen in a "known gang location" wearing either black, gold, yellow, red, purple, green, blue, white, brown, khaki, gray, orange, or lime green, or doing other unspecified activities identified by the NYPD as being gang-affiliated. [37] The NYPD also monitors social media activity, and may add individuals to the database if they engage with social media posts which are connected to people who are already in the gang database.[41]

Facial recognition[edit]

Starting in 2015, facial recognition has been used and integrated with the juvenile database. The NYPD keeps photos in their database for years, and the facial recognition comparisons are often compared to outdated images. As of August 2019, 4,100 photos of 5,500 individuals were no longer ages 16 or under. Depending on the severity of a felony charge, the NYPD is allowed to take arrest photos of minors as young as 11.[21]

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund released a statement in August of 2019 stating that the "It is well-documented that facial recognition technology routinely misidentifies darker skin, women, and young children. [...] This flawed technology puts the children of [Black, Latinx and Muslim people] and other targeted communities at grave risk. Deploying these experimental and biased practices to target children, especially without public or parental knowledge is wholly unacceptable."[42]

The NYPD's privacy statement for the Domain Awareness System specifies that they are not using facial recognition.[43] However, In an interview with gothamist in 2012 then Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed "it's something that's very close to being developed".[44] Additionally, in 2019 it was reported that the MTA has been testing the use of facial recognition.[45]

X-ray surveillance[edit]

The NYCLU claims that the NYPD uses X-Ray devices mounted on vans in order to conduct surveillance. They state "the military-grade surveillance equipment [...] utilizes X-ray radiation to image the inside of cars and buildings", and that the "technologies pose serious risks to our privacy and even our health".[35]

Genetic sampling[edit]

The NYPD maintains a database of genetic information, collected from individuals who have been convicted of a crime, arrested, or questioned by police. Genetic material from the database can be collected from objects touched by individuals being questioned such as cigarettes and cups. The database has 82,473 genetic profiles, growing 29% between 2017 and 2019. The legal aid society claims that 31,400 of those profiles came from individuals not convicted of a crime.[46]

In 2016, the NYPD collected hundreds of genetic samples from individuals in the region around Howard Beach, Queensan attempt to solve the Murder of Karina Vetrano.[47]

Governance / Policy[edit]

NYPD Self-Governance[edit]

image of a camera above a new york city subway help point
180 degree security camera on a New York City Subway platform

In April 2009, the NYPD released privacy guidelines for the domain awareness system's usage of data.[43] In 2012 Olivia J. Greer provided criticism of the NYPD privacy guidelines in the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review, stating that "the NYPD and the Guidelines make it clear that “flexibility” is required to protect the public, and are very unclear with regard to how much and what type of flexibility is required. [...] Of overarching concern is the fact that the Guidelines allow data to be used for indeterminate “legitimate law enforcement and public safety purposes” beyond the scope of the Statement of Purpose. This effectively means that data may be used for any purpose identified by the NYPD to relate to law enforcement, but not encompassed in the Guidelines. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Guidelines appears in the final paragraph: a disclaimer that states “[n]othing in these Guidelines is intended to create any private rights, privileges, benefits or causes of action in law or equity.” Thus, the Guidelines are not legally enforceable."[48]

City Governance - Local Law 49[edit]

In 2017 local law 49 was introduced to the New York City Council, which prompted the "creation of a task force that provides recommendations on how information on agency automated decision systems may be shared with the public and how agencies may address instances where people are harmed by agency automated decision systems".[49] Due to the broadness of this bill, it would include NYPD surveillance algorithms within its scope.[50] However, as of June 2019, it has been reported that the taskforce struggled to gain the necessary information from government agencies in order to generate their recommendations.[50][51]

City Governance - POST Act[edit]

defaced MTA poster with graffiti showing a CCTV camera where the lens is an eye
Graffiti critical of government surveillance New York City Subway

The POST (Public Oversight of Police Technology) act was proposed to the New York City council in February 2018 by Daniel Garodnick and coauthored by sixteen other counsel-members. The act declared its purpose as "creating comprehensive reporting and oversight of NYPD surveillance technologies".[52]

On the day of the hearing on the POST act in city hall, Garodnick and co-author of the bill Vanessa Gibson held a rally in support of the bill. Gibson, chair of the Public Safety Committee, gave a statement “New Yorkers cannot abide by a system that forces us to choose between liberty and safety [...] I believe that the Public Oversight in Surveillance Technology Act will bring transparency to police technology."[53]

In a city hall meeting in 2017, Deputy Commissioner of Counterterrorism and Intelligence John Miller described the POST act as "insane", stating that "The way the bill is written right now it would be asking us to describe the specific manufacturer and model of an undercover recording device that an officer is wearing in an ongoing terror investigation".[3] Chief of Detectives Robert K. Boyce also spoke against the bill, stating that it would give detailed information on the sex offender registry and domestic violence report system, which would then allow individuals to exploit or evade those systems.[54]

New York City Council Black, Latino and Asian (BLA) Caucus endorsed the POST act in 2018, stating that the bill "disclose[s] basic information about its surveillance and the safeguards in place to protect the privacy and civil liberties of New Yorkers" and that "BLAC's endorsement highlights the threat that unchecked surveillance particularly poses to communities of color and Muslim and Immigrant New Yorkers."[55]

The Brennan Center for Justice gave support for the bill, stating "None of the information required by the POST Act is granular enough to be of value to a potential terrorist or criminal [and] will not make surveillance tools any less effective."[56] In their testimony to the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety, they officially supported the POST act, saying the goal of the act is to "have an informed conversation with policymakers and community stakeholders [...] before the NYPD deploys a new technology and before there is another alarming headline about police surveillance [and instead to have] up-front, constructive community input. It also encourages the NYPD to be thoughtful in how it approaches new surveillance technologies, so as not to engage in activities that harm individual rights, undermine its relationships with communities, or waste scarce resources".[57]

City Governance - Comptroller Audit of DAS[edit]

In 2013, the New York City Comptroller began an audit process of the Domain Awareness System, stating "The program does not have an outside monitor and it remains unclear whether it has ever been subjected to any internal audit to ensure access is protected and that it is not vulnerable to abuse or misuse."[58] The audit concluded in 2015, and gave a report which included descriptions of how the NYPD was in compliance with regulations, and also points of concern in the system, including "individuals who were no longer NYPD employees whose DAS access had not been deactivated in the system" and that "Integrity Control Officers did not receive a standard set of criteria to use when reviewing DAS user activities and that the Integrity Control Officers had other responsibilities outside of the DAS system."[59]

State Governance[edit]

The New York State New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services published suggested guidelines for the usage of license plate readers within the state. This includes the recommendation of the creation of a "hot list" of license plates to be monitored, consisting of Gang members/associates, Sex offenders, Crime suspects, Fugitives and Search warrant targets.[60]

Licensing / exporting[edit]

Several large corporations are involved in developing the technology which composes the current surveillance systems in NYC, these include but are not limited to IBM,[61] Microsoft[1] and Palantir.[62]

The Domain awareness system is licensed out by Microsoft to other cities, with New York City getting 30% of the profits.[63] So far the system has been licensed by the Washington DC Metro Police, the Brazilian National Police, and the Singapore Police Force.[1]

See also[edit]

External Links[edit]


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  3. ^ a b c Tempey, Nathan. "Top NYPD Official: Subjecting Our Surveillance Tools To Public Scrutiny Would Be 'Insane'". Gothamist. Retrieved June 10, 2019.
  4. ^ a b "Officer Otto Strikes Again". NYPD Confidential. November 1, 1995.
  5. ^ a b "NYPD Eyed US Citizens in Intel Effort". Associated Press. September 22, 2011. Retrieved September 22, 2011.
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  11. ^ a b Daly, Michael (April 16, 2014). "NYPD Will Keep Spying in the Muslim Community With Undercovers, Informants".
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  13. ^ a b Miller, Anna Lekas (April 23, 2014). "The NYPD Has Disbanded Its Most Notorious Spy Unit, but Is the Age of Muslim Surveillance Really Over?".
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  29. ^ a b c Kanno-Youngs, Zolan (January 17, 2019). "NYPD Emails Show Officers Surveilled Black Lives Matter Protesters". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved June 23, 2019.
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  38. ^ a b ANNESE, JOHN. "NYPD tells 350 people they don't have the right to know if they're in a gang database, Legal Aid says". nydailynews.com. Retrieved June 30, 2019.
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  42. ^ "LDF Responds to Reported NYPD Use of Powerful Surveillance Technology on Photos of Young People". NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Retrieved August 4, 2019.
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  44. ^ Robbins, Christopher. "Photos: Inside The NYPD's New "Domain Awareness" Surveillance HQ". Gothamist.
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  51. ^ Lecher, Colin (April 15, 2019). "New York City's algorithm task force is fracturing". Retrieved June 9, 2019.
  52. ^ "The New York City Council - File #: Int 0487-2018". legistar.council.nyc.gov.
  55. ^ "Black, Latino/a and Asian Caucus Endorses 'POST Act' NYPD Surveillance Oversight Bill" (PDF). Brennan Center. November 28, 2018.
  56. ^ Price, Michael. "Fact Check: The POST Act & National Security" (PDF). Brennan Center for Justice.
  57. ^ Price, Michael (June 14, 2019). "Written Testimony of Michael Price, Counsel Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School Before the New York City Council Committee on Public Safety In Support of Int. 1482" (PDF). Brennan Center for Justice.
  58. ^ "Liu: Report of NYPD Mosque Surveillance is Outrageous Abuse of Civil Rights" (PDF) (Press release). New York City Comptroller. August 28, 2013. PR13-08-168.
  59. ^ "Audit Report on the Information System Controls of the Domain Awareness System Administered by the New York City Police Department". comptroller.nyc.gov.
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