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Details Are Hazy About NYPD’s $3B Surveillance Costs

The city’s police department spent the money on surveillance technology between 2007 and 2019, but listed the expenditures as “special expenses.” Some argue the department is not meeting disclosure requirements.

(TNS) — The New York Police Department spent nearly $3 billion on surveillance technology in a 12-year stretch but continues to flout the law requiring it reveal details of each contract, according to two advocacy groups.

The dollars spent between 2007 and 2019 are with companies large and small — including a contract with a vendor based out of an East Flatbush, Brooklyn, apartment.

The money spent was opaquely listed as “special expenses” in the police budget until 2020, when the City Council passed, over the NYPD’s objections, the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology, or POST, Act.

The law requires the NYPD to explain each contract — from drones to facial recognition software to license plate readers and beyond — and to reveal which other law enforcement agencies have access to the data. But advocacy groups say the NYPD is not meeting the law’s disclosure requirements.

“With many of these contracts we know the vendors’ names, we know the amount that’s being spent. But we don’t have many details about what they’re doing and why they were selected, which is a huge open door for waste, fraud and abuse,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Oversight Project, known as STOP.

“We continue to really question why any of these vendors are allowed to act in this sort of shadowy way.”

Those concerns are “baseless,” an NYPD spokesperson said, noting that the police inspector general recently said the department “has complied with the POST Act’s requirements to produce and publish impact- and use-policies for each of the technologies utilized.”

But that report, issued Nov. 3, also said the NYPD is still not being as transparent as it should. It said too many technologies are listed in general categories, such as video recording devices, when it should list its policies for each separate technology.

The report noted that the robotic police dog project known as Digidog turned into a public relations disaster last year. The NYPD decided to return “Spot,” as its vendor, Boston Dynamics, named it, after a clip of it outside a Manhattan NYCHA development went viral, with critics likening it to something out of a dystopian world.

The inspector general report said Digidog was grouped with other “situational awareness cameras,” meaning its unique capabilities “and potential disparate impacts” were not publicly disclosed.

STOP and Legal Aid on Monday released its latest analysis of the money spent by the NYPD on surveillance technology. The groups made available for public view vendor contracts disclosed by the city comptroller’s office.

Jerome Greco, a Legal Aid Society attorney who specializes in technology issues, said it’s often impossible to figure out contracts when many are heavily redacted.

“The information behind the redactions is probably revealing,” he said. “And that’s part of the problem. It’s information we don’t have access to.”

For instance, Vexcel, a Microsoft subsidiary specializing in software integration, has a $400 million contract with the NYPD.

Microsoft helped build the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, which collects data from different surveillance methods and links the data to people and addresses. Constitutional and racial concerns have been raised about the system, and STOP has said immigration authorities are tracking undocumented immigrants using data collected by it.

But it’s not clear if Vexcel is being paid just for work on that system or for other projects as well.

The firm, based in Boulder, Colo., could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Meanwhile, an apartment in East Flatbush is listed as the headquarters of Eastern Horizon, a camera systems company being paid $2 million as part of a larger NYPD $487 million contract, the details of which are not clear.

“Various Cameras, Recorders, and Accessories” is how the company is described in the contract.

Reached by the Daily News Sunday, Simon Sankar, who lives in that apartment and is listed as the firm’s executive director, said he’s never heard of Eastern Horizon and had no dealings with the NYPD.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said. “This is very upsetting. I can barely pay my bills and my rent I have nothing to do with any of this.”

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