After 9/11, Time to Rein in Big Brother?

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Photo by Karim Mostafa via Flickr

New York City has invested billions of dollars in the 20 years since 9/11 to develop strategies and technologies for the future prevention of terrorist acts.

They are right to take every step to keep New York safe from terrorism.

But the policing practices and technological tools that were developed post 9/11 to tackle the threat of terrorism are also being used in the daily fight against crime in New York City.

Automatic number plate recognition, mobile X-Ray machines, drones, and facial recognition software are used in policing peaceful demonstrations, and are also increasingly deployed to tackle the insidious gang violence and street crime that daily affect New Yorkers in all boroughs across the city.

And of course, these technologies are not limited just to New York police.

Is that a worthwhile use of police resources?

It would seem churlish to suggest that such a resource should not be re-purposed in the fight against crime. After all, if the tools are available, why not use them? We know that criminals are becoming more sophisticated in their methods, and they are constantly evolving new ways of committing crime and avoiding detection.

Some could argue that in fighting crime, any and every tool at the police disposal should be used to keep people safe. My instinctive response, as someone who has spent his career in law enforcement, would be to agree.

But I’d like to offer another perspective, based on current experience in the UK, which has suffered its own deadly share of terror attacks.

As a New York Times article argued earlier this month, it is not the fact that these technologies are available for use that should concern us, but the way in which the police are using the vast array of surveillance techniques now at their disposal to target the many and not the few.

The Times article said:

According to one estimate from a recent analysis by Amnesty International that was shared with The New York Times, a person attending a protest between Washington Square Park and Sixth Avenue — a common route through the park and into the city for protests after the death of George Floyd last summer — would be captured on the Police Department’s array of Argus video cameras for about 80 percent of that march.

There are many, like Raymond Kelly, New York’s police commissioner at the time of 9/11, who say the risk of invading privacy is worth the price of keeping citizens safe.

But Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain turned politician who is the favourite to be elected as the city’s next mayor, has a different view. He promises to re-evaluate how counterterrorism and surveillance resources are deployed in the city.

Although a self-described believer in technology, he doesn’t want it to be used to “dismantle” the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.

This is a challenge that resonates with responsible law enforcement in every democracy.

In the UK, where CCTV cameras are almost on every street corner, we have tried to regulate surveillance tools and other crimefighting technologies in the interests of privacy. We recognize that the growth in digital communications and the use by almost everyone of multiple devices daily has spawned intrusive techniques of investigation and deterrence, even as it has increased the opportunities for crime.

That’s why the protections contained in two UK laws, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Investigative Powers Act 2016 amended in 2020, are embedded into all police investigative strategies.

They give public authorities the power to surveil people―but under a framework of governance and oversight. Carte blanche use of technology to spy on the general population is not allowed.

The level of intrusion that the Times article suggests is now commonplace in New York would be impossible in London or any other city in the UK.

Similarly, the case of Derrick Ingram, a community activist in New York, would be startling to us.

Last summer, Ingram was arrested at gunpoint in his apartment after police accessed his Instagram account and used facial recognition tools, telephone intercepts and a drone to locate him. According to press accounts, he had used a loudspeaker at a demonstration next to an NYPD officer who alleged it had affected the officer’s hearing.

A charge of assault against him was eventually dismissed.

From my vantage point, the high-powered technologies used to investigate petty crimes or target community activists in New York are a disproportionate response to the nature of the crimes being investigated.

Perhaps the time is right, particularly in a New York election year, to revisit the ‘big brother’ question over the legitimacy of policing methods.

Gareth Bryon

Gareth Bryon

Local, state or federal guidelines overseeing the use of intrusive technologies in fighting crime are critical. If decisionmakers were to ask themselves if the use of these methods were justified, appropriate, proportionate and necessary, perhaps the Ingram incident would never have happened.

We’re far from perfect in the UK. But a review of New York’s surveillance activities by the next mayor could profit by looking at the extensive checks and balances contained in the world-leading guidance that is the UK’s Investigatory Powers legislation.

Gareth Bryon is a former Detective Chief Superintendent who worked as a senior officer in the South Wales Police and the British Transport Police, where he led major crime investigation and forensic science services for over 30 years.

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