Transparency Run Amok

A proposal currently before the New York City Council — Intro 1482 — would require a new level of transparency for the Police Department.

The bill is part of a nationwide effort to rein in what is perceived as a burgeoning network of secret, intrusive surveillance technology that can be deployed against law-abiding citizens. Spearheading the campaign is the American Civil Liberties Union, which has introduced similar bills in a number of other cities, including Washington D.C., Miami Beach, Milwaukee and Seattle.

“These technologies are invading our public spaces and creating a culture of fear,” Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, said. “This first wave of legislative efforts being taken across the country is a critical first step to moving local surveillance out of the shadows, ensuring transparency and accountability, and protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”

Advocates also claim that where police have released data about their surveillance operations, it emerged that the technology was used disproportionately in black and low-income areas.

These sound like good reasons to open up police surveillance to greater public scrutiny. We don’t want to live in a police state, with every move videoed, every conversation recorded. Transparency is the watchword.

But, a few days ago, NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller explained to the City Council the good reasons they should reject the bill:

“While the NYPD is committed to transparency, we’re also mindful of maintaining the appropriate balance between reasonable transparency and still having the effective tools and technologies needed to protect our city. This proposal would require us to advertise sensitive technologies that criminals and terrorists may not yet be aware of.

“It would require the Police Department to list them, all in one place, describe how they work and the limitations we place on our use of them. It would make a one-stop-shopping guide for understanding these tools and how to thwart them. The NYPD absolutely opposes this proposal.”

Incredibly, as Miller pointed out, the NYPD would have to post online impact statements 90 days in advance of use and allow for a 45-day period for public comments on each report.

That is a slippery slope down to the following ad absurdum scenario:

As a show of good faith, perhaps we should let Islamic State agents also have input into the system? Perhaps we should have someone from IS represented in the Intelligence and Counterterrorism bureau?

After all, they are the ones most likely to be affected. Investigation without representation is tyranny.

If the insanity of such proposals is not self-evident, think about this: Raising transparency to an absolute value would annihilate security. The requirements to be imposed would effectively neutralize the entire security surveillance system, returning the city to a condition of pre-September 11 vulnerability, where government is prevented from effectively utilizing the same advanced tools that terrorists and criminals the world over have become expert in.

Miller’s argument is hard to refute. Intro 1482 looks like transparency run amok. The war on terrorism is a real war, not a metaphor. Like any nation at war, or even in peacetime, sensitive sites, potential targets and classified information have to be safeguarded from the ever-prying eyes of enemies.

Unvetted persons cannot be allowed to roam freely, taking pictures and making notes for the next bomb plot.

The police are not paranoid. The ongoing terror attacks in Europe and the U.S. are evidence enough that aggressive measures must be taken to counter these murderous groups. They are not boogeymen, invented by security officials hungry for power; they are real-live monsters who must be fought and defeated.

In his testimony, Miller cited the recent case of “two covert Hezbollah agents who were charged with undergoing weapons and explosives training and then conducting pre-operational surveillance of potential targets for terrorist attacks including locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and both airports.” Make no mistake, these people are availing themselves of every technical and legal advantage to bring down western civilization.

To a certain extent it is a dialogue of the deaf. Civil liberties activists contend that the police oppose such legislation because it would interfere with their covert war on innocent folk. The police respond that the technology is only used to protect innocent folk, and that the existing oversight scheme already guarantees a level of transparency that is sufficient to protect civil liberties.

The NYPD works within the court-mandated Handschu Guidelines that govern its investigation of political activity, including terrorism-related crimes. Recently, the department added another layer of oversight, in the form of a civilian representative taking part in internal reviews of investigations prior to final action. The representative, former U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Robinson, is authorized to monitor compliance with Handschu and notify the courts of any violations.

As Miller indicated, the choice is not between transparency and a police state, between a crackdown on terrorists and a crackdown on police. There is a sane middle ground between Orwellian nightmare and surrender of the homeland.

Intro 1482, or at least the concern for civil liberties behind it, is not without merit. Some greater degree of transparency might be in order, as long as it does not handcuff the people who are trying to protect us and give blueprints of our defenses to those who seek to destroy us.