A New York State judge ruled on Monday that the NYPD has to disclose whether it spied on Black Lives Matter protesters and interfered with their ability to use their cellphones at protests. The ruling, which came after the New York Civil Liberties Union and protesters affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives were denied information on how they were surveilled, could finally push the NYPD to reveal the extent of its surveillance arsenal.
Since 2014, protesters at the Millions March, a New York City-based group affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives, have noticed their cell communications go awry at protests, writes the New York Times:
Cellphones suddenly switching off or losing reception, messaging apps going haywire—[protesters] began to suspect the police were monitoring their telephones with Stingrays, devices that mimic cell towers and intercept communications.
After protesters filed a public records request to the police department, the NYPD balked for years about confirming their surveillance tactics—hiding behind what is known as the “Glomar response,” which cites national security concerns to justify withholding information.
But Justice Arlene Bluth ruled that if police were spying and jamming up protesters’ phones, they were violating the law and “cannot hide exposure of that fact through a Glomar response,” writes the Times.
The extent of the NYPD’s tech arsenal may not be as viscerally shocking as, say, the tanks that rolled down the streets of Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 in response to black people protesting the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police. Those images helped Americans understand, to some degree, the extent to which their local police forces had built up military-grade weapons that could be loosed upon the public.
But the surveillance tools local police have accumulated may have an even wider impact—and scarier implications—for the groups they’re surveilling, particularly when those groups are defined by their racial backgrounds.
As the Times wrote of the NYPD in particular, their “sophisticated arsenal of surveillance technology extends beyond cellphone surveillance devices to license plate readers, facial recognition software and drones.” But civil liberties advocates say NYC officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, have kept these capabilities “largely shrouded in secrecy,” writes the paper.