NYPD's new surveillance system: Multifaceted protection, or a little Orwellian?

The NYPD's Domain Awareness System was developed by the department and Microsoft at an estimated cost of $30 to $40 million

In George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, the government of Oceania maintained total surveillance of its citizens via the telescreen, a television installed in virtually every room and on every street corner that could be turned down, but never turned off.

It offered round-the-clock programming aimed at instilling patriotism in the masses, but it also included a camera that gave no clue whether it was active or not.

You watched the TV, but it was also watching you.

The City of New York, in partnership with Microsoft, has rolled out a surveillance system some critics are calling similarly Orwellian and oppressive.

The NYPD Domain Awareness System
The Domain Awareness System (DAS) integrates the output from 3,000 video surveillance cameras installed in public areas, 100 automated license plate readers, 600 radiation monitors carried by some law enforcement officers, and information obtained from conventional intelligence sources to alert the police department to threats of the public safety. It was developed by the NYPD and Microsoft at an estimated cost of $30 to $40 million.

Most surveillance systems are intended to work in real time, finding crime and hazards as they appear. An integrated system like the DAS can do some of that, but is more useful as an analytical tool, backtracking suspicious people, vehicles and incidents to their origins for follow-up. A truck that pings a radiation detector on a busy street can be traced to where and when it entered the city, and even where it came from before that.

Microsoft and NYPD are quick to emphasize that DAS does not employ facial recognition technology to track and identify people. Some critics are branding this as disingenuous. Facial recognition makes it possible to literally find someone in a crowd, even if they have taken measures to hide their appearance.

Privacy advocates usually condemn facial recognition as a tool to enable excessive prying in personal affairs, and it’s certainly capable of being used that way. But the NYPD has a genuine and defensible interest in knowing when certain “persons of interest” enter high-risk areas, particularly when there are other data points indicating they may be up to no good.

There is a very fine line between legitimate monitoring of suspected terrorists and infringement on civil liberties.

Another concern is records retention and public access to these records. The Public Security Privacy Guidelines released by the City of New York delineate the retention periods of various data, from video (30 days) to metadata and LPR data (five years).

Would this data be discoverable via subpoena? Will it be available to employers, private investigators, or detectives involved in traditional criminal cases? There are a lot of unanswered questions, since both NYPD and Microsoft are not being forthcoming with details beyond the initial news release.

One way someone might be able to get more information is to bring a checkbook to the meeting. Microsoft intends to market the Domain Awareness System to other potential buyers, with the City of New York sharing in 30 percent of the profits. 

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