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Why Is OWS Blanketed With NYPD Cameras -- And Are Police Breaking the Law?

Why is an overwhelmingly peaceful protest under such heavy surveillance?

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A 2005 NYCLU survey found over 4,000 cameras below 14th street in Manhattan; five times more than they'd tallied in 1998. Lieberman says that number was a lowball because there are so many cameras that NYCLU didn't have the manpower or the time to count all of them.

Authors of the report warned at the time about a "massive surveillance infrastructure" creeping across the city, unattended by adequate public oversight or outside regulation. Five years later, there's no exact count of all the cameras in New York, but Lieberman says, "We believe if we were to try to repeat the survey today, we would find that there are so many more cameras. Way beyond our wildest imagination."

Today that task would be complicated by the roll-out of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, a plan launched in 2005 to cover the area below Canal Street in video cameras constantly streaming footage that's analyzed at a centralized location. In 2009 police commissioner Raymond Kelly announced that the Initiative would be expanded to midtown.

In a macabre twist, journalist Pam Martens has discovered that the law enforcement center where much of the camera footage is examined can be accessed by high-level Wall street employees. Martens obtained 2005 correspondence from Commissioner Kelly promising Edward Frost, a then-Goldman Sachs VP, the creation of "a centralized coordination center that will provide space for full-time, on site representation from Goldman Sachs and other stakeholders." 

Martens writes, "According to one person who has toured the center, there are three rows of computer workstations, with approximately two-thirds operated by non-NYPD personnel. The Chief-Leader, the weekly civil service newspaper, identified some of the outside entities that share the space: Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, the Federal Reserve, the New York Stock Exchange. Others say most of the major Wall Street firms have an on-site representative."

The surveillance gadgetry available to the NYPD, and apparently to the very finance industry forces that OWS is protesting, is sophisticated. There are license plate readers that can capture license plate numbers and match them to a database. The cameras can be programmed to alert officers to activities like loitering, and people can be followed as they move from camera to camera.

Over the past year, reports have come out suggesting that the NYPD has plans to integrate face recognition technology into the operation.

As the AP reported, "New facial-recognition technologies will soon make it possible to track exactly who is walking down the street," [Bloomberg] said, adding that he believes "we're going in that direction."

The mayor then opined, "As the world gets more dangerous, people are willing to have infringements on their personal freedoms that they would not before." 

At the beginning of the year, local outlets reported that the NYPD was recruiting officers for a new face recognition unit. The NYPD has not replied to repeated requests for comment, so it's not clear if the face recognition technology is in use, and if so, in what cameras -- but a representative of ICX Technologies, the company that builds tactical platform towers like the one stationed at Zuccotti Park, tells AlterNet that the cameras on the tower are compatible with face recognition software.

That would mean an image can be matched up to a mugshot in any criminal database, or any non-criminal database for that matter -- including one of the largest public identity databases in the world, Facebook. 

Right after 9/11, when airports and cities enthusiastically embraced face recognition, the technology was fairly crude and a lot of the programs were dropped. But in the past 10 years advances in the software -- including 3-D imaging and "skinmetrics," which maps marks and imperfections in the skin of the face -- have revived law enforcement and Homeland Security's interest. 

 
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