X-ray vans: NYPD still shielding details of military-grade surveillance tech
The New York City Police Department has refused a court order for ten months to release records on its vans ‒ honed by the US military in Afghanistan ‒ that use X-ray radiation on city streets. The NYPD was sued over the surveillance tool three years ago.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the Brennan Center for Justice have called on an appellate court to enforce a lower court's decision that the NYPD must provide information on its unmarked Z Backscatter vans, also known as X-ray vans.
"How is the NYPD ensuring that innocent New Yorkers are not subject to harmful x-ray radiation?" NYCLU's senior staff attorney Mariko Hirose wrote in the filing, a request to submit an amicus brief.
"How long is the NYPD keeping the images that it takes and who can look at them? Is the NYPD obtaining judicial authorization prior to taking images, and if so, what type of authorization? Is the technology funded by taxpayer money, and has the use of the vans justified the price tag?"
The Z Backscatter vans were first used to detect roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Each unit costs the NYPD between $759,000 and $825,000, according to the NYCLU. The vans enable police to look through the walls of buildings and inside trucks.
For three years, the NYPD has refused to answer a New York Freedom of Information Law request registered by ProPublica, which asked for police reports, training materials, contracts and any health and safety tests related to the surveillance vans. The news outlet sought information on various security technologies, such as the vans or airport scanners, that expose people to ionizing radiation, which can boost the risk of cancer.
The NYPD said such transparency would hurt the department's counter-terror operations and put lives at risk. Disclosure of these records would "permit those seeking to evade detection to conform their conduct to the times, places and methods that avoid NYPD presence and are thus most likely to yield a successful attack," Richard Daddario, the NYPD's deputy commissioner of counterterrorism at the time, said.
In December, State Supreme Court Judge Doris Ling-Cohan ordered the NYPD to release the information.
"While this court is cognizant and sensitive to concerns about terrorism, being located less than a mile from the 9/11 site, and having seen firsthand the effects of terrorist destruction, nonetheless, the hallmark of our great nation is that it is a democracy, with a transparent government," Ling-Cohan wrote in her decision.
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The NYPD appealed the decision and continues to deny its responsibilities to follow a state judge's ruling.
“Those are issues I’d prefer not to divulge to the public at this time,” NYPD Commissioner Willam Bratton told the New York Post last week. “I will not talk about anything at all about this ‒ it falls into the range of security and counter-terrorism activity that we engage in.”
In the case, Grabell v. the New York Police Department, the trial court ruled that the NYPD did not show how disclosure of the X-ray van information hindered investigations. Furthermore, the US Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have divulged similar information on the same kind of technology, the NYCLU has argued.
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“Fair policing requires the NYPD to be willing to tell New Yorkers when it is using technologies that significantly intrude on their privacy,” Hirose said in a press release accompanying the filing. “The NYPD is out of step with the growing recognition that public awareness of how law enforcement conducts surveillance is important for democracy.”