The New York City Council has introduced new legislation intent on causing greater transparency and accountability over the NYPD’s utilization of impressive surveillance tools they have recently begun employing. The legislation in question is the Public Oversight of Police Technology (POST) Act, and it mandates that the NYPD divulge basic information about the technology it is using; this would entail providing details on the policies and procedures in place for gathering and protecting sensitive personal information. Essentially, the POST Act aims to defend the privacy rights of New Yorkers and ease supervision of the NYPD—the goal is to make NYC safer for everyone.
Those against the POST Act argue that the disclosure requirements proposed could enable the criminals to gain more information that could be useful for their illicit activities. A vocal believer of such is Larry Byrne, the Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters of the NYPD. Byrne called the legislation “misguided” and fears the disclosure requirements laid out in the bill could help criminals figure out how to thwart police investigations, and thus make the job of the NYPD much more difficult.
This fear is a very real one and, for this reason, the Council created the POST Act in a way that would evade the release of operational details that could be used to hinder police investigations. With this in mind, the concerns that the POST Act, in its present state, could be more beneficial to the criminals than to the NYPD are unfounded.
Additionally, successful criminals are typically already aware of the surveillance tools used by enforcement officers—this does not, however, make the tools less useful in aiding the officers. Major examples would be that most citizens are aware of the employment of wiretaps, cell phone locators and license plate readers, and they are even commonly referred to in pop culture. Despite this visibility, these tools continue to be used and the fact that people know the police use wiretaps doesn’t make them less effective in their purpose.
The problem the POST Act aims to resolve is that lawful New Yorkers, such as the City Council members themselves, are not informed of the technologies and guidelines employed by the police in relation to these tools. It makes it harder to trust that our security is being safeguarded if the details and ethics behind such are being kept from us.
The novel surveillance technologies do uncover information about criminals, but they also have a tangible impact upon the privacy rights of all New Yorkers. Furthermore, some basic information can not only increase the confidence of the populace in the NYPD, but it can also enable the legislators and government monitors to oversee the NYPD and ensure that their jobs are being done efficiently.
Unlike the NYPD, the federal government is accustomed to regularly disclosing the rules and guidelines set in place when utilizing new technologies and has heavily encouraged local agencies to have the same transparency in relation to such. The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, for example, have both published their policies on the use of “Stringrays,” which are cell phone locators. Thus, it’s insensible to argue that the NYPD should employ greater secrecy when the federal government does not view disclosure of this type of information as a threat to the security of the nation.
Furthermore, even if the legal entity does not employ this sort of transparency regularly, the public does eventually find out about the tools. This can be done through press discoveries or as a result of complicated freedom of information lawsuits. Information of this nature is also required to be disclosed to courts and criminal defendants. If this is not honored properly, thousands of prosecution could be jeopardized and the safety of the city could be compromised, as proven by the cases in Baltimore and Florida.
The central purpose of the POST Act is enabling the public and City Council to remain well-informed on the information the NYPD is collecting and the policies regarding how that information will be retained, shared, and protected. The POST Act aims to safeguard the fundamentally democratic pillars of transparency and oversight, rather than compromise public safety and national security in even the slightest manner.