By Sabina Mollot
In March, Council Member Dan Garodnick, along with Council Member Vanessa Gibson of the Bronx, introduced a police oversight bill that’s aimed at making the technology the NYPD uses for its anti-terror efforts and the policies under which they are used more transparent.
But it was last Wednesday, when the Council members held a rally and hearing to push the bill, dubbed the POST Act, when the NYPD as well as the mayor responded to slam it, arguing that it would put too much sensitive information in the hands of terrorists.
Garodnick has since reiterated an earlier claim that he was willing the work with police to tweak the bill, adding that police’s bashing of the act as “a blueprint for harm” has amounted to fear-mongering.
Other opinions have already varied just as widely. A Wall Street Journal editorial with the headline “A Terrorist’s Guide to New York City” cited last year’s bombing in Chelsea while calling Garodnick and the bill’s supporters “anti-anti-terror stalwarts.” Meanwhile, an opinion piece in the Daily News called the legislation a much needed step considering previously reported incidents of NYPD surveillance incidents of students and activists.
According to a press release from the bill’s sponsors, The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act requires the NYPD to issue an impact-and-use-policy for each piece of surveillance technology it employs. This would include a description of each tool and under what circumstances it would be used as well what security measures are in place to protect any data it collects, and whether other entities have access to that information. Once the police publish this information, the public would get a chance to respond before the department provides a final report to the City Council and the mayor.
The bill would also give the NYPD inspector general the power to make sure the department follows its own policies with regards to the technology.
The POST Act does not require the NYPD to disclose when or where it will use one of the tools at its disposal.
This week, at an unrelated press conference, Garodnick told Town & Village he believes his legislation has been completely misunderstood by the NYPD.
“Their description of the bill is wildly misleading and unfortunate,” said the Council member. “We have been ready and willing to work with them to strike the right balance for months and continue to be ready to do that.
“But,” he added, “Rather than engage in the legislative process, they went and booked television appearances and stoked fears.”
That said, the response didn’t come as a complete surprise, based on previous attempts by the Council at law enforcement oversight.
“The police department does not like when local legislators try to interfere with their business,” said Garodnick, “but they need to remember that civilians are in control of the Police Department, not the reverse.”
He added that the bill was inspired by conversations he had with privacy advocates indicating that the public didn’t appreciate the way NYPD technology was being used. Meanwhile, protocols do exist at the federal level with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice both providing information about surveillance tools being used.
Additionally, Garodnick argued, with email hacking being a new normal, and immigrants living in a heightened state of fear under the Trump administration, “New Yorkers deserve to know what, if any, information could be shared by the NYPD with the federal government.”
The bill does not have a majority in the council though it does have the support of 34 organizations, including the Brennan Center, the Legal Aid Society, the Urban Justice Center and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
It was the latter group that, through a FOIL request, learned that Stingrays, towers that track where a cell phone is being used and in some cases, information stored on it, was used over 1,000 times by the NYPD without police first obtaining a warrant.
“Maybe there’s a good, appropriate reason for that,” said Garodnick, “but we need to have a conversation about the procedures.”
Asked for the department’s thoughts on the bill, the NYPD referred to testimony that had been submitted by Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism John Miller at the council hearing.
The testimony said while the department is “committed to transparency” it remains “absolutely opposed” to it.
Miller referred to documents discovered in 2000, known as “the Al Qaeda manual” that instructed would-be terrorists on how law enforcement operates.
“Hackers would also welcome this information,” Miller’s testimony continued, with another argument against the POST Act being that the NYPD itself could suffer in the form of “chilled relationships” with other law enforcements agencies that wouldn’t want their own sensitive data exposed.
“This bill would require us to advertise sensitive technologies that terrorists don’t fully understand,” Miller said. “It would require the Police Department to list them, all in one place, describe how they work and what the limitations we place on our use of them. In effect, it would create a one-stop shopping guide for understanding these tools and how to thwart them.”