Technology outpacing civil liberties in New York policing

WSN Editorial Board

The New York Post recently reported on the New York Police Department’s latest experiments with vans capable of seeing inside cars and buildings. We know neither how many X-ray vans the NYPD has nor do we know how, when or why they’re being used, and officials are far from forthcoming with details. “I will not talk about anything at all about this,” NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said to the Post. “The devices we have, the vehicles if you will, are all used lawfully and if the ACLU and others don’t think that’s the case, we’ll see them in court — where they’ll lose.” He did not go into much more detail, except to be overly specific in denying that the vans were used to search for weapons. The NYPD is almost certainly acting outside the bounds of the Constitution, and may even be acting contrary to civilian safety. The NYPD has not yet provided documentation proving that the x-ray vans emit safe levels of radiation. Until they do so — assuming such tests have even been done — it is irresponsible for the NYPD to continue violating civil liberties in the name of security and counterterrorism.

These X-ray vans — also known as the Z Backscatter Vans — were initially developed for the military as counterterror vehicles, yet are now in use by the NYPD. While ZBVs appear to be everyday delivery vehicles, they have the ability to peer under clothing and scan vehicles or buildings for weapons, explosives and contraband. The ZBV follows Stop-and-Frisk, indiscriminate surveillance of Muslims, license plate cameras and the Stingray controversy in a long line of transgressions upon the rights of New Yorkers. ZBVs represent an egregious abuse of public trust and disregard for individual liberty. Any warrantless search of private property presents serious Fourth Amendment concerns. Indiscriminately X-raying the general public is a gross violation of the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. The New York State Supreme Court took a step in the right direction when they ordered the NYPD to turn over all of its records regarding the X-ray vans, a decision that the police department is appealing.

The implications of these vans are worrisome to say the least. There is a fine line between safety and invasion of privacy, and the NYPD’s X-ray vans have already crossed that line. Without providing information to the public about these vehicles, the NYPD is flagrantly deflecting accountability while endangering its citizens’ health and rights. The X-rays will be pointed not only at potential criminals, but also at pregnant women, grandparents and children. The fact that the NYPD is fighting to suppress crucial health information implies that they are unsure of the effects of these X-rays on the citizens of New York. Uncertainty aside, grave questions of privacy and liberty remain.

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