NYPD had secret fund for surveillance tools

New York City police purchased a range of surveillance tools, including facial recognition software, predictive policing software, vans equipped with X-ray devices to detect weapons and simulators of “stingray” cell sites, without any public surveillance, according to documents released Tuesday.

In total, the documents show that the NYPD has spent at least $ 159 million since 2007 through a little-known “special spending fund” that did not require approval from city council or other city officials. The documents were made public by two civil rights groups, the Legal Aid Society and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), which claim the practice amounted to a “surveillance slush fund.”

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of STOP, said police are still blocking other recordings “necessary for the public to understand how our city is being watched.”

The contracts are heavily written, which makes it difficult to understand how a single tool works, let alone how they can work together to create a surveillance net over the people of New York. Secrecy also prevents a fuller understanding of the relationship between the NYPD, its salespeople, and the public.

In 2018, the NYPD awarded $ 6.8 million to Idemia Solutions, which provides biometric tools including facial recognition. Details are redacted, but the company came under fire in 2019 after it was revealed that the NYPD seizes children under the age of 18 into facial recognition databases maintained by the company. The 2018 contract ended in 2020, but it gave the NYPD the option of renewing it for two years.

In 2014, the NYPD signed a five-year, $ 800,000 contract with Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest defense contractor, to upgrade and maintain devices across town. The specific devices are written in the contract, but Elbit Systems provides a wide range surveillance tools used by Customs and the US Border Patrol on the southern border, including the cameras and sensors that make up the “virtual border wall”.

In 2016, the NYPD entered into a three-year, $ 750,000 contract with American Science and Engineering, which provides mobile x-ray vans. Originally developed to detect improvised explosive devices in war zones, vans can scan vehicles for weapons up to 1,500 feet away. Health officials have warned the devices could be a risk of cancer as they can expose passers-by to unhealthy amounts of radiation. The NYPD has used vans from to less 2012, but it has successfully fought attempts to reveal where and how often they are used, citing national security.

The documents also include contracts with KeyW Corporation, which provided the NYPD with cell site simulators, called “stingrays”. These devices mimic cell phone towers, recording the credentials of any phone that connects to them, allowing police to track people through their phones.

“Armed with stingrays, law enforcement can, without the help or consent of mobile operators, locate a person at home, in a place of worship or in a doctor’s office, or carry out mass surveillance of people gathered in an area, whether it’s for a protest, conference or party, ”says Daniel Schwarz, privacy and technology strategist at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

In 2017, the NYCLU for follow-up the NYPD for more information on his use of Stingray devices after protesters alleged police interfered with their phones during a protest in honor of Eric Garner, who was killed by an officer from the NYPD in 2014. With thousands of people in such a small area, the devices would form a net of bystanders who are not suspected of any crime, simply engaging in an activity protected by the First Amendment. Schwarz says the city should at a minimum get warrants before using the stingrays.

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