New York half way to installing terror surveillance network

Broadway office building a few blocks south of Wall Street. Personnel from the NYPD and its partners examine feeds from the cameras, alerts from license-plate readers and reports from 911 calls.

“It’s a force multiplier” for the police, said Andrew Wartell, a security consultant who was Goldman Sachs’s representative to the project and the bank’s vice president of global security from 2004 to 2008. “They don’t have to put cameras out on the same street that a company already has cameras on to watch their own facility.”

The system is based in part on the City of London’s “Ring of Steel,” a camera network in the square-mile financial district in the 1990s after Irish Republican Army bombings.

New York’s system links cameras with a fiber-optic network, completed in July, that lets investigators search through a month’s worth of video, Kelly said.

The department this year began using analytic software in some cameras that can spot suspicious signs, such as unattended packages and movement in restricted areas, he said.

“It doesn’t do you any good to put 3,000 cameras out and then have an expectation that anyone’s going to watch any of them,” said Wartell, explaining the need for software. “That’s certainly the thing you’ve seen in London with the Ring of Steel. They have tons of cameras, but they don’t have tons of people watching.”

In addition to delays tied to cuts in federal terrorism grants, the camera network also faces opposition from civil liberties advocates. The proposal invades privacy and does not prevent terrorist attacks, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“Our main concern is that it’s unlike most police activity, which is focused on people who are suspected of unlawful activity,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the NYCLU, the state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. “In fact, 99.99 percent of people who are captured in the system are just going to be people walking around, going about their business.”

Police privacy guidelines state that the cameras are aimed at public places “where no legally protected reasonable expectation of privacy exists” and stipulate that video recordings must be disposed of within thirty days unless the deputy commissioner for counterterrorism orders otherwise.

“The law is settled that there is no privacy right in a public area,” said Vallone, of New York’s city council. “None of us are thrilled about being observed in public places, but I think the vast majority of New Yorkers understand that it’s necessary.”

The government argues that the project information sought by the NYCLU is being legally withheld because it’s used for law enforcement purposes and disclosure would expose “critical infrastructure” to attack.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union representing about 22,000 city police officers, said that while cameras can help investigate a terrorist attack, “they don’t help prevent it.”

“A camera has never arrested an armed robber or thwarted a terrorist threat,” Lynch said in a statement. “You need police boots on the ground to make that happen, and with 6,000 fewer police officers on our streets than in 2001, the NYPD is already stretched too thin.”

Browne, the police spokesman, said there’s no doubt that cameras help in investigations.