By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - 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 operations.
"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 crime."
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 tap into.
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 precinct desktop.
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 Claudia Parsons)