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NYPD Using Secret Money for Surveillance Tech

by Anthony W. Accurso

A public-records request uncovered details about the New York Police Department’s use of a secret fund the agency has been using to purchase surveillance tech.

Two civil rights groups, the Legal Aid Society and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, obtained documents that were released by Wired in August 2021 showing that the NYPD has been using the “Special Expenses Fund” to purchase various items they didn’t want disclosed to the public.

Due to a “memorandum of understanding” with the City’s Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”), contracts and other information dealing with technology or tools used in “confidential operations” do not have to be disclosed by the NYPD to the OMB. The city is complicit in these “dark” purchases by abdicating oversight through this memorandum, which allows the NYPD to decide how much oversight the oversight agency can have.

Though the document revealing the purchases are heavily redacted, the NYPD spent $159 million since 2007 to buy tech from contractors specializing in AI, facial recognition, cell-site simulators (a.k.a. Stingrays), and mobile x-ray vans. Millions of dollars went to a company called Idemia Solutions. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent with an Israeli defense contractor, though the redactions make it difficult to determine what the NYPD bought from them.

Five years ago, the Chicago PD was caught using seized cash to pay for surveillance tech as a means of hiding it from citizens and city officials. At least in that instance, the city officials were not willingly looking the other way, as is happening in New York.

Willful disregard for transparency reduces accountability, and police must be accountable to the communities they serve. Maybe this attention will shame the OMB into rescinding the memorandum of understanding, allowing New York citizens to scrutinize purchases of the equipment being used to spy on them.  


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