Documents Show NYPD Has A Secret Surveillance Tech Slush Fund

from the pre-approved-dark-funding dept

About a half-decade ago, public records requesters discovered the Chicago Police Department had been spending seized funds on surveillance equipment like Stingray devices. The forfeiture fund was apparently completely discretionary and the PD used this steady supply of cash to make purchases not specifically approved by the city. It also allowed the department to elude direct oversight of surveillance activities and ensure the public was unable to interrupt the procurement process with pesky comments and questions.

It appears the New York Police Department has been doing the same thing for at least as long. But it’s not doing it with “discretionary” funds lifted from New York residents using civil forfeiture. Documents obtained by Wired show the infamously secretive agency has even more secrecy up its sleeves — a fund that is specifically exempt from its own oversight.

New York City police bought a range of surveillance tools—including facial-recognition software, predictive policing software, vans equipped with x-ray machines to detect weapons, and “stingray” cell site simulators—with no public oversight, according to documents released Tuesday.

In all, the documents show that the NYPD spent at least $159 million since 2007 through a little-known “Special Expenses Fund” that did not require approval by the city council or other municipal officials. The documents were made public by two civil rights groups, the Legal Aid Society and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), which say the practice amounted to a “surveillance slush fund.”

Millions of dollars went to Idemia Solutions, a facial recognition tech provider. Hundreds of thousands went to an Israeli defense contractor, which has provided some sort of “devices” to the PD (details on the devices are redacted). Three-quarters of a million went to a mobile x-ray van manufacturer. The list continues, encompassing a cell site simulator provider and other surveillance tech/software contractors whose documents have been redacted into near-uselessness.

Unfortunately, it appears the city gave its explicit blessing to being cut out of the approval process. A memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and the city’s Office of Management and Budget allows the NYPD to withhold contracts and other information dealing with tech/tools used in “confidential operations.” So, the city is completely complicit here, which differentiates this from the situation in Chicago. In New York, taxpayers are (or rather, aren’t) seeing their tax dollars spent on secret tech from a fund no one is allowed to oversee.

Combining secret tech with zero accountability is only the NYPD’s idea of a good time. Hopefully this national exposure will prompt the city to shred its memorandum of understanding and start over with some accountability measures in place.

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Comments on “Documents Show NYPD Has A Secret Surveillance Tech Slush Fund”

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8 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

The cultural construct of city or public oversight just being about the spending of money, rather than the things you are employing and doing, regardless as to whether they cost money or not is something that needs to be relegated to the radioactive dumpsterfire of history.

Also: Fucking x-ray-ing people without their knowledge or consent? What the actual fuck?

That One Guy (profile) says:

What could go wrong?

Well that’s reassuring, here I was worried that a gang of criminals had gotten their hands on of a sizable stream of money with no way to know what the hell they were spending it on, but it turns out it was just the NYPD….

Yeah, when it comes to taxpayer funded agencies full transparency should be the baseline, if they can’t account for all of their spending then it should be cut off entirely until they can. The idea that a police department should or even could be able to spend taxpayer dollars completely without oversight is something that should never have been allowed or even seriously considered and the fact that the city gave this the green light just leaves both it and the NYPD looking corrupt as hell.

Anonymous Coward says:

Combining secret tech with zero accountability is only the NYPD’s idea of a good time.

I disagree here. A lot of non-cops in NY would not only not be bothered by it, but they would encourage it and accept the premise that it would be impossible to stop the bad guys if they had some oversight.

Giuliani and Bloomberg went in hard on portraying the NYPD as a front line counter terrorism agency which let them use Muslims to justify this kind of off the books spying. As it so happens a lot of people in the US don’t think Muslims have much of a right to exist, let alone actually be protected by the constitution, so far too few care about rights violations as long as they’re used to lock up people they don’t like the look of.

Overall I just think we need to stop and acknowledge that while public trust has plummeted 48% of the country is still quite happy with the police. It would be a grave miscalculation to assume this program would have no public support. That doesn’t make it any less problematic, but it’s still important to acknowledge.

Upstream (profile) says:

Not holding my breath

Hopefully this national exposure will prompt the city to shred its memorandum of understanding and start over with some accountability measures in place.

Why do I no longer see this sort of reform as even a remote possibility? Instead, if anything happens I think it will probably be some form of "doubling-down," along with some serious persecution, or even prosecution, of whoever let this cat out of the bag.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Another garbage article by Tim Cushing

Tim Cushing seems to write headlines that are clickbait, one-page, nonsense articles that never include actual journalism. Who did he interview? Nobody. It’s apparently clear this article is a sheet of toilet paper that leads to no names other than CPD and NYPD. Why didn’t he contact people for comment on the matter? Maybe because he’s a lazy human being who lives in an echo chamber called Techdirt, where he can write trashy articles like this one.

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