Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Lower Manhattan: The Eyes Have It

Curious about the 'Ring of Steel' in lower Manhattan? The NYPD has made its privacy guidelines public. > By Ali Winston

When the New York Police Department first announced plans for a new network of 3,000 surveillance cameras and sensors throughout lower Manhattan three years ago, skeptics voiced concern over wholesale, unregulated monitoring of innocent citizens.

Modeled on London’s 10,000 camera system, called the "Ring of Steel," the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI) – which has attained the same nickname – will consist of 3,000 networked cameras monitoring 1.7 miles of area south of Canal Street. One-third of the cameras will be city-owned, with the other two-thirds belonging to private businesses, termed “stakeholders” in the guidelines. Automated license plate readers and environmental sensors will also provide data to the police. The cameras will be monitored by officers at a coordination center on Broadway, which opened last November. The system is expected to cost $89 in local and federal funds.

To allay concerns about the intrusiveness of this network, the NYPD last month made public a preliminary version of the Public Security Privacy Guidelines for the Domain Awareness System, the program that will handle all data gathered by Lower Manhattan Security Initiative cameras. Comments on the draft will be accepted through next Wed., March 26 (and may be e-mailed to oct@nypd.org or mailed to New York City Police Department, Attention: Counterterrorism Bureau, 1 Police Plaza, New York, NY 10038).

According to the draft guidelines, the data management program is a counterterrorism measure intended to deter future attacks, detect “pre-operational” terrorist activity, increase “domain awareness” for non-police entities involved in the program and provide an infrastructure for the “integration of new security technology.”

The system will gather and store information from cameras, automatic license plate readers, environmental sensors and other unspecified technology. Video data will be erased after a 30 day “pre-archival period,” unless footage is being used in law enforcement investigations. License plate data and “metadata,” a broadly-defined category of information that will “increase the usefulness” of footage or sensory data gathered, will be retained for five years. Environmental data may be retained indefinitely.

(For more on surveillance in New York City, see Near and Present Danger: Freedom In Today's City, City Limits Weekly #646, June 30, 2008.)

Despite the NYPD’s assurance that data from the Domain Awareness System will be strictly regulated and the cameras will not be used to target innocent citizens, surveillance skeptics including the New York Civil Liberties Union remain unconvinced about the department’s commitment to privacy.

“They purport to be nothing more than internal NYPD policy. There are no actual restrictions here,” NYCLU associate legal director Christopher Dunn said of the privacy guidelines issued by the police department. Dunn, who is lead counsel on the NYCLU’s 2008 lawsuit to obtain information about the Ring of Steel, says the police department broadly defines the data it will retain: “Ninety-nine point nine percent of what they collect will be lawful activity.”

Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne did not respond to requests for further comment on the LMSI project and its privacy guidelines.

City Councilman Alan Gerson, whose lower Manhattan district includes the designated area, says he views the NYPD's guidelines as a first step toward ensuring that video surveillance is done properly. "It's important that this not be allowed to evolve into a general surveillance system, but rather be used to identify and prevent real threats," Gerson said.

He plans to introduce legislation in the next few months that would codify regulations and restrictions for video surveillance in the five boroughs. Asserting council oversight over the practices of the police department – rather than leaving surveillance policy solely in the hands of the Bloomberg administration – is another reason Gerson is pursuing this issue. "We need to maintain these checks and balances," he said.... (more)

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