NYPD Continues to Confuse Itself with the CIA

Refuses to divulge information about X-ray van surveillance


The New York Police Department has said it has ended its practice of using informants to snoop on Muslim organizations in New York and New Jersey without any actual definable suspicion of terrorist activity attached to the targets.

Instead it could very well be using vans with X-ray-emitting equipment (costing more than $700,000 each) to snoop inside vehicles and buildings. We don't know the extent to which this is happening, nor whether it's creating health hazards for anybody caught up in it, because the New York Police Department is refusing to provide any information and fighting against a court order that they do.

A journalist has been fighting to get information about the program for about three years now, and it doesn't seem to be getting a huge amount of attention, perhaps because the NYPD just simply refuses to talk about. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic has a useful primer of what small level of reporting has happened thus far. He takes notes of the kind of questions the NYPD is refusing to answer:

  • How is the NYPD ensuring that innocent New Yorkers are not subject to harmful X-ray radiation?
  • How long is the NYPD keeping the images that it takes and who can look at them?
  • Is the NYPD obtaining judicial authorization prior to taking images, and if so, what type of authorization?
  • Is the technology funded by taxpayer money, and has the use of the vans justified the price tag?

The New York Civil Liberties Union is assisting the journalist in its legal efforts trying to get answers. Friedersdorf notes how the NYPD has once again mistaken its civil, domestic law enforcement mission with that of a secret spying agency:

A state court has already ruled that the NYPD has to turn over policies, procedures, and training manuals that shape uses of X-rays; reports on past deployments; information on the costs of the X-ray devices and the number of vans purchased; and information on the health and safety effects of the technology. But New York City is fighting on appeal to suppress that information and more, as if it is some kind of spy agency rather than a municipal police department operating on domestic soil, ostensibly at the pleasure of city residents.

Its insistence on extreme secrecy is part of an alarming trend. The people of New York City are effectively being denied the ability to decide how they want to be policed.

"Technologies––from x-ray scanners to drones, automatic license plate readers that record license plates of cars passing by, and 'Stingrays' that spy on nearby cell phones by imitating cell phone towers—have brought rapid advances to law enforcement capacity to monitor citizens," the NYCLU notes. "Some of these new technologies have filtered in from the battlefields into the hands of local law enforcement with little notice to the public and with little oversight. These technologies raise legitimate questions about cost, effectiveness, and the impact on the rights of everyday people to live in a society free of unwarranted government surveillance."

Read more here.