No More Surprise NYPD Robots

Corinne Worthington, Aaron Greenberg / Oct 31, 2023

Corinne Worthington is the Research Manager at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.). Aaron Greenberg is a Research Intern at the S.T.O.P. and a graduate student in the bioethics program at Harvard Medical School.

NYPD press announcement in Times Square, April 11, 2023. Source

If your police department could spy on your backyard using drones, wouldn’t you want to know? What if it could track you in the subway using robots, or tag your car with a GPS locator? Isn’t it important to know how your police force can monitor you?

As it turns out, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) already can—and does—do all these things. And in fact, there’s a law called the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act that requires the NYPD to tell you about how it employs surveillance technologies. If you haven’t heard of those capabilities, there’s a reason: the NYPD has so far failed miserably to comply with the POST Act’s requirements.

With the NYPD’s history of shady practices and spending when it comes to spyware, the POST Act was supposed to provide public transparency regarding how New Yorkers were being surveilled and who had access to the data. By demanding policies for technology usage and data-sharing, as well as impact assessments, the law was intended to hold the NYPD to a standard of justice commensurate with the power of wielding such intrusive tools. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, in the three years since the POST Act was passed, the NYPD has both failed to make a good faith effort to comply with the oversight law and has, in several cases, shown flagrant disregard for it. Due to the failure of existing oversight mechanisms to ensure the NYPD's compliance with the POST Act, we argue that any new technology acquisitions or contract renewals must be approved by the City Council prior to implementation.

In its initial report, NYPD has fallen short on all provisions of the POST Act. Rather than detailing the specifics of existing technologies, it offered unspecific categories that failed to shed light in a meaningful way. To avoid early communication of new acquisitions, the department leveraged a loophole that characterizes new technologies as "enhancements" of existing technologies— arguing, for example, that the K5 Autonomous Security Robot is an enhancement of a "situational awareness camera". The report's impact and use policies are too vague to be meaningful, and it fails to disclose the vendors that supply its technologies. Mirroring how the NYPD failed to reveal that 99% of those included in its Criminal Group Database (known colloquially as the gang database) are Black and Latinx, the impact assessments issued by the Department hardly acknowledge racial biases.

In some instances, the NYPD has ignored the stipulations of the POST Act altogether. After deploying unmanned aerial surveillance drones to spy on New York Labor Day and West Indian American Day celebrations, the department failed to prepare an addendum to the drones' impact and use policy, a direct violation of the act. Recognizing the deficiency of the NYPD's report on their compliance with the POST Act, the New York City Council's Committees on Technology and Public Safety have scheduled a hearing to hold the department accountable. But on October 30th, the Council delayed the hearing for the third time,citing the NYPD’s inability to appear, suggesting that the NYPD can't be bothered to send a representative. These repeated postponements underscore the consistent lack of regard the NYPD has for the public's desire for surveillance transparency.

Given the NYPD’s continued secrecy regarding its use of surveillance technology, its blatant disregard for transparency measures, and its continued refusal to engage in a discussion about compliance, we believe that stricter oversight is necessary to curb the NYPD’s technology-related abuses. Rather than relying on the NYPD to self-report its technology and capabilities, which has obviously failed, we propose that all technology purchases and contract renewals be subject to City Council approval. City council and community board oversight of technology is far from unprecedented. Most of the municipal Community Control of Police Surveillance (CCOPS) Laws enacted in the United States include some form of acquisition approval for new technologies. Instituting an external check on the NYPD’s currently unilateral ability to expand its surveillance arsenal will advance the rights to transparency, privacy, and freedom from oppressive surveillance that New Yorkers deserve.


Corinne Worthington
Corinne Worthington is the Research Manager at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.). Corinne recently graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in Human Rights Studies with a focus on the policy, practices, and deployment of surveillance technology as mechanisms f...
Aaron Greenberg
Aaron Greenberg is a Research Intern at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a graduate student in the bioethics program at Harvard Medical School. He has a background in software engineering, having worked as an engineer and manager at the Securities & Exchange Commission and DigitalOc...