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NYPD intelligence chief pushes back on surveillance oversight during panel

August 14, 2019 Mary Frost
From left: Councilmember Donovan Richards, NYPD’s John Miller and Gothamist’s Ben Max at the Protecting NY Summit. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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The NYPD does it by the book when it comes to high-tech surveillance of residents, John Miller, deputy director of Intelligence and Counterterrorism for the NYPD, said at the Protecting NY Summit held on July 31. The summit was sponsored by City & State and moderated by Ben Max of Gotham Gazette.

While the city does use license plate readers and monitors chat rooms, nobody is watched “until there’s the possibility of illegal activity,” he said in an interview following the panel discussion.

Miller denied that the city has installed facial recognition devices for surveillance purposes.

“We don’t have any facial recognition devices in Brooklyn or anywhere else,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I think when you look at the facial recognition debate, there’s two debates going on. How is it being used commercially [and] how are other agencies using it or misusing it, and how do we in the NYPD use it.”

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Miller said the NYPD does have license plate readers placed “strategically throughout the city.” (Published reports put that number at around 500.)

The department follows a protocol for license plate checks, he said. When the license plate reader system was put in along with the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, the NYPD developed and publicly posted a privacy policy, one that Miller says went through “all of the kinds of checks and balances that something like that should go through.”

The license plate readers are part of NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, which links sensors, closed circuit cameras, criminal databases, and devices to bring data to every police officer’s cell phone. The system also links up to a national license plate reader network, so NYPD can follow a car in real time across the country.

The POST Act

Queens City Council member Donovan Richards, chairperson of the Committee on Public Safety, worries that the data collected by the NYPD can be misused. His committee is hoping to pass the POST Act (Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology), “which NYPD may not be joyous about.”

The POST Act would increase transparency and oversight over the NYPD’s surveillance technology, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. It would require the NYPD to disclose basic information about the surveillance tools it uses, and any safeguards in place.

“What protocols are being put into place to make sure there’s not rampant abuse?” Richards asked.

“White nationalism is one of biggest threats to our country. Look at the propaganda, the lone wolves watching YouTube videos, the attacks [like the one] in Charleston. The question is, if NYPD is going to monitor people, we believe that everyone needs to be treated equally,” he said.

Richards contrasted the NYPD’s treatment of the Proud Boys visit to New York City, where they “raised hell on our streets,” to the NYPD’s surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists. Richards said NYPD went so far as to jam the black marchers’ phones. (Miller denied the NYPD had done this.)

“Are they treated equally? The answer is no,” Richards said. “Certain communities have historically been treated differently. This is a reality for the people praying in a mosque, for Black Lives Matter people who have had threats. At the end of the day, everyone has to be held to same standard.”

Miller argued against some of the provisions in the POST Act legislation, such as requiring the description of the equipment used by undercover officers.

“Undercover officers take their lives into hands,” he said. “To describe their equipment would put them in danger.”

While Miller is all for protecting civil rights, “If there’s an attack, nobody ever called the ACLU to testify why this happened,” he said.

Later, Miller told the Eagle, “We don’t look at license plates until there’s a crime that makes looking at license plates relevant. Then we look at where’s a description of the car, what license plate on a car just like that went by, and you solve crimes that way.”

The police “absolutely could” abuse this information, “but the system is built in with auditing features,” he said. “To do that you have to log onto the system. You have to use your number. You have to make that search … There’s no anonymous look up of a license plate.

“We haven’t had many abuses of that system, but what we have had is thousands of crimes solved. Thousands and thousands,” he said.

The worries over facial recognition

Worries about the misuse of facial recognition have received much publicity recently. Brooklyn U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke and other lawmakers are working on legislation that will prevent public housing units from requiring residents to submit to facial recognition to get into their homes. Other cities are in the process of banning its use by police.

But Miller told the Eagle there’s a “kind of mythology” about facial recognition — “That our NYPD cameras are vacuuming up everybody’s face that goes by, that they’re all being stored in a giant database in the cloud, and that everything is run through a giant facial recognition machine to tie these people to crime.

“Nothing like that exists,” he said. “When we have a picture of somebody involved in a crime, suspected in a crime or at the scene of a crime, and it’s clear enough to be applicable to facial recognition, we will run it against our existing mug shots of already arrested known criminals and see if there is a match.”

An NYPD expert will look at the image “and determine if it could possibly be that person by [asking], ‘Are they in the area of the crime? Does their record show they’ve been arrested for that specific crime many times before? Are they wearing the same outfit that the guy in the picture committing the crime is wearing?’”

You still can’t go out and arrest that person, he said. “But you can send that to the detective who has that case and say ‘You submitted this for facial recognition. Here’s a possible lead. Run it down. Then they would have to come up with actual evidence, additional evidence, a witness ID and so on.”

At a recent panel discussion at the NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress, Jonathan Stribling-Uss of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the NYPD’s use of facial recognition technology is potentially problematic.

“The chief is saying that the NYPD is using [facial recognition technology] in a limited way, but that’s not actually what we’ve seen from the NYPD’s own documents,” he said.

Richards commended the NYPD and Miller for doing “a phenomenal job” keeping people safe.

“But the police have a sordid history when you talk about the surveillance of communities of color,” he said. Richards brought up the example of young people being listed in gang databases “because of the building they live in or the color they wore when they went to the store.”

He added, “We believe in the work the NYPD does every day, but that does not preclude them for being responsible to the city.”

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