The New York Police Department is spending $160 million in city and federal funding on a massive surveillance network of video cameras and license plate readers for Lower and Midtown Manhattan. Despite the investment of public funds, NYPD refuses to reveal much of what it will purchase under the plan, how the costs are being shared, how data will be stored or used—or even what broad Homeland Security priorities the high-tech system is supposed to support.

In 2006, the NYPD announced its intention to install a network of 3,000 video surveillance cameras (two thirds of them privately controlled) and up to 96 license plate readers to protect Lower Manhattan against future terrorist attacks. The Lower Manhattan Security Initiative or LMSI, colloquially known as the "Ring of Steel," has an estimated price tag of $92 million.

Despite persistent doubts about privacy, civil liberties violations and the involvement of private institutions in the network, last October Police Commissioner Ray Kelly announced a $58 million expansion of the Ring of Steel to Midtown Manhattan at a City Council hearing—to the surprise of city legislators.

The Ring of Steel has been wrapped in a veil of secrecy that not even New York State's Freedom of Information Law can penetrate. After a nine-month FOIL saga, City Limits recently obtained a set of Homeland Security documents from the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget that offer insight into the broadest public surveillance program of any major American city.

The focus of the Ring of Steel is to prevent, deter and respond to "acts of terrorism aimed at disrupting the nation's economy." One such possibility listed is "a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device" attack on "sensitive locations" in Lower and Midtown Manhattan.

Incidents deep in New York City's history are cited in the documents as evidence that New York needs such a surveillance system. The Sept. 16, 1920 detonation of a carriage bomb outside JP Morgan's Wall Street headquarters is mentioned along with the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Recent examples of thwarted terrorism plots against New York City cited in the documents include an alleged 2004 attempt to bomb the Herald Square subway station, an "aborted plot" to attack the Brooklyn Bridge and "surveillance of the region's financial sector and infrastructure" by al Qaeda operative Issa al-Hindi.

The "Fiscal Year 2009 Investment Justification for the NYC Urban Area" reveals that the NYPD conducted an engineering study of Midtown Manhattan to map out the area covered by the Ring of Steel's second layer, the MMSI. The MMSI's estimated cost for FY 2009 was placed at $37.9 million, with $11 million in city funds directed towards the project.

The 2009 document also details NYPD's plans to build out an integrated camera network for Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs, as reported by City Limits last year: "The NYPD has begun acquiring a dedicated (REDACTED) network to encompass all of Manhattan as well as the outer boroughs of NYC."

The documents indicate that the MMSI's bidding process extended from August 2009 through the end of January, 2010. Unspecified network enhancements intended to augment "CCTV data" and identify "patterns of suspicion behavior" were begun in August. Buildout of the MMSI is expected to be complete by 2012

However, the documents were heavily redacted. Among the information blacked out in the 120-odd pages of documents are specifics on NYPD expenditures, all contract and management information for the project and specifics on how Ring of Steel data will be used by NYPD's intelligence division.

Some examples of redacted information include:

  • A two-page breakdown of NYPD spending under Homeland Security grant funding for 2007 itemizes specific projects, including the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative. However, all funding requests and awards are blacked out. The first page is devoid of information save the grand award total of $135,426,000.

  • Contract and management specifics for the LMSI and MMSI, including potential and current problems with installation, are completely redacted from the FY07, FY08 and FY 09 investment justification documents.

  • Specifics concerning the sharing of law enforcement information with the private sector are redacted, as in “Given the importance of information sharing with private industry, the City established systems appropriate for the dissemination of private information to (REDACTED). These systems include (REDACTED). This investment supports these initiatives by ensuring that information is gathered and shared in virtually real-time.”

    NYPD did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Ring of Steel's rollout, current numbers of cameras or arrests attributed to video surveillance.

    The grant documents also claim NYPD has taken extensive measures to address civil liberties concerns about widespread video surveillance. According to one document, NYPD worked "with community leaders, city officials and the private sector to address civil rights concerns involving the installation of cameras."

    Chris Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, disputes this account. "I don't know of any meetings with community groups about the Ring of Steel," says Dunn. "They certainly haven't met with us."

    In early 2009, NYPD released a set of proposed privacy guidelines for public comment. A finalized copy has not been made available to the public.

    "Civil liberties is a loser in New York City," said Prof. Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD and lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The department's line is, if you're anti cameras, you're pro-crime and pro-terrorist. Individually, it all makes sense. When you add it up, however, you have an unfree society."

    Numerous studies of public surveillance cameras in the United States and the United Kingdom have shown cameras to have at best a minimal impact on deterring crime, although images recorded by cameras have been used to apprehend perpetrators. The deterrence effect of cameras on terrorists is even harder to detect. Camera footage has been used to identify terrorists after the fact--including some of the September 11 hijackers--but some terrorists do not want to elude identification (and don't intend to survive their own attacks). Cameras could help police to detect an attack in progress. But while the grant documents cite the London video cameras as a model for the Ring of Steel, London's massive video surveillance network did not prevent the 7-11 bombings in 2005.