Privacy SOS

NYPD’s Domain Awareness System raises privacy, ethics issues

A couple of weeks ago AP reported that the NYPD and Microsoft jointly developed a surveillance platform for the police department called "Domain Awareness System." The story was short on details, but told us "the program combines city-wide video surveillance with law enforcement databases" "to track both criminals and potential terrorists."

The system allows police to track and monitor individuals and cars as they move through the city in real time, under the watchful eye of Manhattan's more than 3,000 surveillance cameras and unknown number of license plate trackers. The city plans to expand its CCTV program to the boroughs over the coming years.

Available information about the system makes it sound like a publicly-funded competitor to systems developed by Palantir, a data-mining company that has profited immensely off of the push towards so-called "predictive" or "intelligence-led" policing in the United States post-9/11.

The problematic and unproven logic underlying implementation of this kind of networked data-mining for law enforcement is that more data and smarter algorithms can not only enable police to respond more quickly to crimes, but also potentially help officers stop crimes before they occur. There is no evidence to prove the latter claim, but we know that these technological "fixes" for social and political problems have very serious implications for our privacy.

The efficacy of the tools is unknown, but the privacy harms are clear. Nonetheless, NYC is plunging head first into what appears to be a privacy disaster.

'Domain Awareness' in NYC

The first publicly available information about the program came from an NYPD privacy policy for the "Domain Awareness System" posted on the Public Intelligence website, dated 2009:

The Domain Awareness System not only supplies critical supplemental assistance to officers’ ongoing security and public safety efforts, but also enhances the collaborative nature of those efforts by leveraging the resources of the private sector and other City agencies…
The Domain Awareness System will be operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in a professional manner and only in furtherance of legitimate law enforcement and public safety purposes…
The Domain Awareness System will be used only to monitor public areas and public activities where no legally protected reasonable expectation of privacy exists.  
Facial recognition technology is not utilized by the Domain Awareness System. 
All NYPD-owned CCTVs that are part of the Domain Awareness System will have accompanying signage, and the NYPD will recommend that signage accompany each Stakeholder-owned CCTV that is part of the Domain Awareness System.

Representatives of banks and other non-NYPD personnel who work alongside NYPD officers at the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center are granted access to the Domain Awareness System, provided that those individuals are briefed on the privacy policy and sign a confidentiality agreement with the NYPD, according to the document.

While the 2009 policy states that the Domain Awareness System does not use face recognition, more recent reports suggest the NYPD is in the process of acquiring or has subsequently implemented the technology. Mayor Mike Bloomberg told the press that "it's something that's very close to being developed." (In a related development, the FBI is ramping up its face recognition database.) 

On August 8, 2012, the NYPD and the mayor gave the press a tour of the DAS program (photos here). A statement published on the same day on the mayor's website says that through DAS, "NYPD personnel can actively search for suspects using advanced technologies like smart cameras and license plate readers." The system retains license plate data for all motorists captured by the NYPD's plate readers for five years at minimum. From Gothamist:

Reports of suspicious cars can be followed up with license-plate scanners, which will track and beam back the location of the vehicle to the system so that the police can follow it in real-time—video feeds will also show delayed images to help the officers determine if the car is in a caravan. Arrest and driving records are shown alongside the camera image.

The Microsoft-engineered software platform also provides a new technological platform for NYPD mapping, a practice that has come under considerable scrutiny because the department has been found to extensively track and monitor Muslim and Arab businesses throughout not only New York City but also the tri-state area. From Bloomberg's statement: 

The Domain Awareness System is a powerful counterterrorism and policing tool for retrieving and displaying information from cameras, license plate readers, environmental sensors and law enforcement databases. Using an intelligent and intuitive graphical interface, it provides real-time alerts and the means to quickly call up relevant information to guide and inform police action. Its mapping features, which are tied to rich data sources, support investigations, crime analysis and effective management of police resources. The system, developed by police officers for police officers, is an innovative tool that has the potential to revolutionize law enforcement, intelligence and public safety operations.

DAS puts increased technological powers in the hands of a police department that has been shown time and again to demonstrate racial bias and bias against Muslims in its policing practices, in addition to having come under repeated fire for its heavy-handed approach to dealing with protesters and its attacks on freedom of the press. 

The department says that it developed a privacy policy in consult with liberties organizations, though an updated policy has not yet been made publicly available. 

The hand that feeds your surveillance programs

Apart from the privacy concerns, the Microsoft partnership raises an ethical issue because it provides the NYPD with a new funding stream, while the department is expected to serve as its salesman to other police departments nationwide:

As part of the agreement, the City will receive 30 percent of revenues on Microsoft’s future sales of the Domain Awareness System, which will be used to support innovative and cutting-edge crime-prevention and counter-terrorism programs…The NYPD has agreed to describe accurately the project to prospective licensees of the base technology platform.

The Microsoft-NYPD agreement therefore provides the NYPD with a fiscal incentive to claim that the real-time tracking and data-mining program is successful, even if it isn't. We've seen the NYPD stretch the truth about the efficacy of its surveillance programs before, even without such a fiscal incentive.

Will it 'work'? At what cost?

Only time will tell if the technology truly makes a big difference in terms of public safety. (Given that expensive, advanced data-mining schemes have thus far failed to prevent mass violent episodes in the United States, it's highly unlikely that it will.) But the larger question for New Yorkers is whether they want to live under the NYPD's permanent gaze, even if it did make them safer. Systems like the DAS don't provide investigators with a window into the minds of people who intend to do harm to others, but they do allow the police to track and monitor people they don't like, constituting a dangerous threat to liberty.

Advanced surveillance technologies present us with a values question that couldn't be more urgent — or less prominent in conversations about our nation's security, from the highest levels of government all the way down to the Mayor's office in New York.

How far are we willing to go before we decide the police and the state have enough power? When is too much surveillance too much? 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.