| NEW YORK, June 21
NEW YORK, June 21 Having developed one of the
most sophisticated surveillance networks in the United States,
the New York Police Department is now expanding its use, giving
local precinct commanders new powers to fight street crime with
high-tech tools previously used only in counterterrorism
"The technology, having been inspired and engineered with a
sense of urgency after 9/11, has obvious applications to
conventional crime fighting," said Paul Browne, chief NYPD
spokesman. "That is in the process of being expanded citywide,
for what - after all - is our primary mission, which is to fight
New York is among a handful of big U.S. cities that have
been developing extensive surveillance networks in recent years
using federal anti-terrorism funding. New York's network was
initially modeled after London's so-called 'Ring of Steel,' the
most extensive surveillance camera network anywhere.
There are no legal restrictions against using the
surveillance network for traditional crime fighting, though much
of the network has been built with Homeland Security grants. But
the sheer scope and sophistication of the system worries people
like Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York
Civil Liberties Union.
"There is no outside monitoring of the use of this system at
all...no protections now - none, zero," said Dunn, whose group
filed a lawsuit on Tuesday accusing the police of violating
religious freedoms and constitutional guarantees of equality in
its monitoring of Muslim communities.
The development comes amid recent disclosures about the
National Security Agency's secret surveillance of phone and
email traffic. With New York mayoral elections coming up in
November, policing issues have become a point of contention
among the candidates.
The NYPD is already facing litigation over its surveillance
of Muslims and over so called stop-and-frisk tactics that
critics say discriminate against minorities.
Last summer, the department introduced what it calls its
'Domain Awareness System,' or DAS, developed in partnership with
Microsoft and funded by a combination of city funding and U.S.
Homeland Security grants. To date the system has cost a total of
$230 million, Browne said.
The system's customized software ties together much of the
NYPD's wide-ranging resources - from surveillance cameras,
license plate readers and radiation detectors to 911 calls,
criminal records and other city databases - and displays the
information on a user-friendly 'dashboard.'
As part of a pilot program, commanders are accessing the DAS
system 'dashboard' from desktops inside some precinct houses.
Eventually - department officials declined to provide a
timeline - the NYPD will begin rolling out mobile terminals that
house the DAS dashboards to each of the city's 76 precincts, and
equipping each patrol car and beat cop with a mobile device that
can call up the dashboard from anywhere, said NYPD Deputy
Commissioner for Counterterrorism Richard Daddario.
The department has also doubled the number of public and
private surveillance cameras in the network from 3,000 in lower
Manhattan to 6,000 citywide, Daddario said. About one third of
the devices are police cameras and the rest are existing
surveillance cameras that private businesses allow the police to
The NYPD is also deploying more license plate readers, which
now capture photographs of every single car that travels in or
out of the city. About 120 license plate readers are perched
above bridges and tunnels and city traffic lights, with plans to
increase the number of fixed readers to 200, Browne
said. Another 100 or so mobile license plates readers attach to
the hood of squad cars. Browne said the department has a
database containing more than 16 million plates.
Where previously the readers would alert police to cars
associated with individuals on NYPD terrorism watch lists, they
are now alerting police to violent fugitives, homicide suspects,
and even drivers with expired license plates, Browne said.
When a license plate reader sends an alert, analysts at
headquarters communicate the information to cops on the street.
With the push of a button, the DAS system's dashboard can
geo-spatially map each location in the city where a plate reader
has spotted the car in the past five years, said Jessica Tisch,
the NYPD's director of counterterrorism policy and planning, who
demonstrated the dashboard for Reuters recently.
Some civil liberties lawyers believe such a system is
tantamount to an end run around the Fourth Amendment.
"A comprehensive license-plate reader system is akin to
attaching police GPS devices to our cars, since the system
allows the police to track movements throughout the city," said
Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in U.S.
vs. Jones that police need a warrant to install such a device on
a person's car. "The public would never stand for routine GPS
tracking by the police, but this system is moving us towards
that very situation," Dunn said.
Asked to respond to such criticism, Daddario said "We'll see
how the law evolves, but I don't think that in any case the (DAS
system) violates anyone's expectation of privacy."
NYPD officials say they have been working with Microsoft
developers to fine-tune the software underlying the system,
moving through six versions of the program since its inception.
While earlier versions could search hours of footage from
multiple cameras in seconds to spot and isolate individuals
wearing, for instance, the color red, the new version of the
software can isolate a specific article of clothing. Instead of
just a person wearing red, analysts can now isolate a person in
a red baseball cap or blue pants.
A portion of the surveillance network includes so-called
smart cameras - custom-built NYPD cameras that are equipped with
video analytics software that can detect certain suspicious
activities or behaviors, like unattended packages or a car that
circles a certain city block repeatedly.
The NYPD has also begun incorporating hundreds of its
so-called VIPER cameras, which are deployed in public housing
complexes throughout the city, into the DAS system. The cameras
can pan, tilt and zoom, and can be operated remotely from a
City privacy guidelines require the NYPD to destroy
surveillance video after 30 days, and license plate reader and
metadata after five years.
Police officials declined to discuss terrorism-related cases
that were cracked using the DAS system, but have pointed to
several violent crimes they solved using a combination of
technology and traditional detective work.
In January, for example, the driver of a big black car tried
to grab a 13-year-old girl off the street on her way to school
in Queens, and later in the day a 14-year-old girl reported a
similar incident, Browne said.
The DAS system allowed police to cross-reference a grainy
surveillance camera image of the car, a sketch based on the
girls' accounts, data on late-model black Cadillac Escalades,
license plates and ownership records.
They narrowed it down to one suspect, a livery cab driver
with a mugshot in the system. Police drove to his last known
address, and sitting in the driveway was a black Cadillac
Escalade with missing center wheel caps - the only key detail
the young witnesses had remembered, Browne said. The suspect was
charged with two counts of luring a child to commit a crime, two
counts of child endangerment, and two counts of harassment. A
pretrial hearing is set for later this month.
(Reporting By Chris Francescani; Editing by Arlene Getz and