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Activists Seek Accountability by Pushing NYC to Make Footage From Traffic Cams Available for Archiving

by Douglas Ankney

NYC Mesh is a free community owned internet service provider in New York City that is operated by a group of activists. The activists’ new project involves archiving hundreds of gigabytes of the city’s surveillance camera footage in an effort to hold police accountable.

Aakash Patel, a volunteer for NYC Mesh, posted in a blog: “Currently, to witness and document an incident using the [Department of Transportation (“DOT”)] footage, you have to be watching the right camera at the right time and be ready to take a screenshot. The archive makes it possible to review footage after an event has taken place. By making this resource available to the public, we are providing another source of visual evidence.”

But there are some snags. For one, the DOT is hindering access to the information. For the first couple of days, Patel was able to archive more than 200 gigabytes of video each day. Then it slowed considerably.

As of June 2020, the archive included feeds from only two boroughs, Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I actually submitted a request to the city ... to get a formal feed of the cameras, as they would provide a news agency, and no one has gotten back to me,” Patel informed Motherboard in an online chat. “We need someone from the DOT to help us expand this to the whole city.”

NYC Mesh developed the project by writing a tool that archives an image from every public camera each time the feed gets updated, which varies from one to 30 seconds. The data are then loaded on Google Drive in bundles organized by hourly folders. The folders come with text files containing information about the camera ID, the borough it’s in, and its specific location.

While the DOT provides public access to live streams of the cameras on its website, it doesn’t make recorded data available. Patel argues, “If the government can access all of this footage to monitor citizens then we should have access to monitor the police.”


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