from the eyes-on-the-eyes dept

In New York City, the government’s surveillance tools are being turned against it. This is wonderful news for all citizens who still have the power to inject accountability and transparency into a system that wholeheartedly resists it. To keep tabs on misbehaving cops, activists are using the city’s cameras to watch their watchers. Lorenzo Franceshi-Bicchieari has the details for Motherboard.

A group of activists that runs a free community-owned internet service provider in New York City is now archiving hundreds of gigabytes of the city’s surveillance camera footage in an effort to keep police accountable.

The city’s Department of Transportation has several publicly-accessible cameras on its website. But it’s incapable of tracking anything on its own. Citizens can watch camera feeds, but unless they’re willing to camp out 24/7 to catch cops doing things they shouldn’t, there’s no permanent record of the incident. The activists are using a script to capture feeds and remove the transient nature of the system.

The project works like this: NYC Mesh has written a tool that archives an image from every public camera every time the feed gets updated, which can be between one and 30 seconds. The pictures are then uploaded on Google Drive in bundles organized by hourly folders that have a text file containing information about the camera ID, the borough it is in, and its specific location.

It appears the DOT is aware of this additional activity. Akash Patel, who is contributing to the NYC Mesh project, told Motherboard he’s noticed a significant slowdown at the site. Patel used to be able to download around 200 gigabytes of photos a day. It now appears the DOT is throttling connections to prevent mass downloading of camera images.

There isn’t a system out there that can’t be gamed. The government watches the cameras when it wants to keep tabs on citizens. Citizens have always had the option to ensure the watching goes both ways. A tool that automates the collection of footage is just the forward progress of technology.

License plate readers have removed the manual labor involved in running plates and/or surveilling people’s movements. Facial recognition tech has made it possible for officers to obtain anyone’s ID without actually approaching that person and demanding it from them. And reverse warrants allow cops to obtain a list of suspects and witnesses without actually having to canvass the area where a crime occurred.

Citizens should strive to streamline their watching of watchers whenever possible. Using the DOT’s cameras to keep an eye on errant cops just makes sense. After all, it’s their tax dollars that are being spent to outfit the city with hundreds of cameras and provide the infrastructure to support it.

Filed Under: nyc, surveillance, traffic cameras, watching police

Categories: Technology