Objections to New York City’s Attempts to Prevent Crime and Terrorism

Did anyone notice what didn’t happen at the Olympics just concluded in London? No terrorist incidents.

by / August 13, 2012
Mikey G Ottawa. Creative Commons License Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Mikey G Ottawa. Creative Commons License Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Did anyone notice what didn’t happen at the Olympics just concluded in London? No terrorist incidents. The Brits have learned from previous attacks and have instituted massive surveillance systems in an attempt to predict and prevent terrorist acts. But such systems collide with privacy and personal freedom. Is there a balance between privacy and surveillance?

Last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the Domain Awareness System, a sort of one-stop shop for crime and counterterrorism data that’s accessible in real time to New York Police Department officers and other law enforcement personnel. By monitoring surveillance cameras, radiation monitors, license plate readers and more — the NYPD hopes to prevent crime and terrorism.

Almost immediately, privacy advocates decried the system as intrusive and subject to abuse, especially as Microsoft intends to roll it out nationwide and share the profits with New York City.

New York City has a long history of attempting to predict and prevent threats to public safety. In the early 1990s, a “cave cop” named Jack Maple, using only butcher paper and crayons, devised a detailed crime map of subway stations. In a 1999 interview with Government Technology, Maple explained that COMSTAT or COMPSTAT, as it came to be called, was an attempt to predict where crimes would occur, rather than just responding to crimes after the fact. "I called them the charts of the future," said Maple in the 1999 story. "On 55 feet of wall space, I mapped every train station in New York City and every train. Then I used crayons to mark every violent crime, robbery and grand larceny that occurred. I mapped the solved vs. the unsolved."

Mapping was the first step. The next was to use the data to deploy Transit Police where they would be most effective. That was above Maple's pay grade, but William Bratton — hired by the Transit Police to cut crime — took notice of Maple's "charts of the future," and deployed officers based on them. Crime dropped in the subway system, and Bratton took COMPSTAT and Maple with him when he was promoted to head the NYPD. Bratton made officers responsible for offenses committed in their areas, and instituted detailed follow-up sessions where officers were grilled — and sometimes fired — when crime rose.

New York City's success with COMPSTAT led to other cities instituting similar systems. Maple, in the 1999 Government Technology interview, said that while across the country, murder dropped 21 percent, New York City's murder rate dropped 70 percent. Other cities reported similar results in reducing crime, and "predictive analytics" become a major crime-prevention player. Computers replaced the butcher paper and crayons, and other technology — including surveillance cameras, gunshot detection equipment, license plate readers and more —joined the fight.

There’s an obvious difference, however, between COMPSTAT and the Domain Awareness system. COMPSTAT depended on previous patterns and locations of crime to help officers intercede, and that approach should still prove effective for criminal activity. But the attack that brought down the World Trade Center towers was a global first.

So instead of a great number of similar criminal offenses — following a predictable method of operation — terrorists conduct a few one-off horrors, and so prediction is much more difficult, and the consequences exponentially more severe. Terrorists roamed through Mumbai in 2008, for example, killing at random more than 160 people. Anders Breivik last year set off a bomb in Oslo, Norway, then shot young people at a youth camp, killing 77.

With individuals willing to walk into a crowd and blow themselves up or be killed, the game changed, and thus the rest of us are inflicted with distasteful intrusion, from pat-downs to Internet surveillance. Reacting to a terrorist incident after it has happened is too late, especially if the perpetrator is dead as well. The most effective way found so far to detect and prevent such one-off terrorist attacks is to infiltrate, surveil and generally snoop into personal communications. For those who fear we are becoming a police state, blame the terrorists, not the cops. And the Internet — which allows destructive psychos to anonymously search for and recruit the like-minded — is where they communicate, plan, and “share their thoughts and feelings.” So that is by necessity the new prevention/prediction landscape.

An ACLU official said that a civilian agency should monitor the Domain Awareness System to ensure that it is not abused. That’s not a bad idea, as the ability to spy on others is always an attractive lure for the unprincipled as well as those dedicated to public safety. No population should have to trade its freedoms for safety, but a balance must be struck.

At Issue: Is surveillance of personal communications inevitable, and if so, what safeguards should be mandated?

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.