Kathy Hochul Is Ready to Spend Millions on New Police Surveillance

New York state legislators have just days to question phone hacking, forensics, and fusion centers before the budget passes.

Chris Gelardi   ·   March 29, 2022
Darren McGee/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul | Darren McGee/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

This article was published in partnership with The Intercept.

In January, when New York City Mayor Eric Adams released his highly publicized inaugural “blueprint” to combat gun violence, it set the stage for political commotion. His plans for ramped up policing — including new gun detection technology, increased patrols, and the redeployment of a notorious plainclothes unit — have drawn condemnation from advocates and activists, and praise from mainstream pundits, fueling the ongoing debate over cops’ role in communities.

Around the same time that Adams released his plan, New York’s governor, Kathy Hochul, unveiled details of her own policing initiatives to crack down on gun crime — but hardly anyone seemed to notice. Embedded within the dozen bills and hundreds of line items that make up her plan for next year’s state budget, Hochul’s administration has proposed tens of millions of dollars and several new initiatives to expand state policing and investigative power, including agencies’ ability to surveil New Yorkers and gather intelligence on people not yet suspected of breaking the law.

Among Hochul’s proposals are a new statewide system of police intelligence gathering centers, which would engage in mass surveillance, and whose model hinges on the use of unproven forensic science. Other proposals include funds for new law enforcement social media surveillance personnel, the expansion of existing police intelligence gathering and sharing efforts, and most likely technology that downloads the full contents of people’s cellphones, on top of millions of dollars for more street policing.

Several of the initiatives would be housed under New York state’s primary fusion center — one of at least 80 secretive intelligence hubs created during the post-September 11, 2001, expansion of domestic surveillance — as well as other similarly opaque police intelligence bodies. Those entities fall under the purview of two state agencies, but they would work in close conjunction with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Budget negotiations have turned chaotic due to Hochul’s last-minute push to roll back New York’s bail reform statute — drawing one state legislator to compare her to the bullish former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and another to go on a hunger strike. The budget is supposed to pass by April 1, but the legislature could still hold it up as a way to kill the bail reform rollbacks or include programs the governor wants to leave unfunded.

Yet Hochul’s proposals for increased surveillance — many of which directly mirror points in Adams’s plan — have been met with seemingly no resistance from the state legislature.

In their own budget proposals released earlier this month, which deviated from the governor’s on several key issues, the state Senate and Assembly adopted Hochul’s police intelligence and analysis line items, allotting at least as much funding as Hochul requested.

Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani said that he was unaware of the surveillance provisions before New York Focus and The Intercept contacted him, and that he hasn’t heard of any budget negotiations about them. “I think this is a problem with the process at large, where everything is so rushed,” he said. “It’s a race against time to figure out what has been put in here and how to counter it,” and lower-dollar items get lost in the more than $200 billion bigger picture.

In response to a list of questions, Avi Small, a spokesperson for the governor, provided a generic statement that the governor’s office has sent to several other news outlets, including New York Focus, referring to Hochul’s “bold initiatives to embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our future.”

Neither Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins nor Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie replied to emailed questions from New York Focus and The Intercept, nor did four other legislators’ offices, including progressives and those on relevant committees. Three others declined to comment, expressing that they were unfamiliar with the details of the budget items.

Fusion Centers

At the heart of Hochul’s plans to combat gun crime is information sharing, which the governor has touted as a part of a “holistic and proactive approach to regional law enforcement.” A major part of the effort is New York’s main fusion center, where the governor intends to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars, adding to new gun intelligence efforts she has already set in motion.

Fusion centers have come under fire over the past decade for lack of oversight and wanton and ineffective use of surveillance. A U.S. Senate investigation in 2012 found that fusion centers had disseminated shoddy intelligence and likely violated privacy laws. In 2020, a massive hack of fusion center data revealed that cops had used the hubs to monitor protesters, surveil journalists, propagate false intelligence, and discuss measures like facial recognition technology, social media monitoring, and private security camera access.

Elected officials in other states have debated pulling funding for regional fusion centers. But with this year’s state budget, Hochul is hoping to beef up New York’s.

Her budget would allocate $215,000 to the New York State Intelligence Center, or NYSIC — New York’s primary fusion center, which is overseen by the State Police — to hire a new team of analysts focused on guns.

Fusion center analysts incorporate intelligence from a slew of departments and databases and disseminate it among law enforcement agencies at every jurisdictional level. They have access to dozens of government and private sector information systems — including gang databases, to which NYSIC can add names. And NYSIC has had information sharing relationships with local police and prosecutors and over a dozen state and federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Critics point to this extensive integration to argue that investment in intelligence hubs is never limited to the crimes lawmakers claim.

“Clearly New Yorkers are concerned about the rise in gun violence,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. But “we’ve seen a pattern of intelligence fusion centers being expanded with the justification that they would target whatever crime was most in the news, only to see those resources fuel the same broken patterns of mass incarceration.”

Hochul’s budget proposals would also allocate $527,000 to NYSIC to hire a new social media analysis team. That team would “perform daily analysis of publicly available social media activity related to school violence threats, gang activity, and illegal firearms,” according to materials the governor published with her budget proposal — a prospect civil liberties advocates find especially alarming.

With social media policing, “this is not just pulling up a person’s account,” said MK Kaishian, a civil rights lawyer and member of the New York City-based GANGS coalition, which organizes against police surveillance. “They use mass data scraping tools … that really create dragnets over the information of especially young people.”

Victor Dempsey, a community organizer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a GANGS coalition member, pointed to how police in New York have used seemingly innocuous social media posts or “likes” to falsely label youth as gang members or accuse them of planning violence. Creating units to surveil social media for signs of gun crime is a recipe for those errors, he said.

“Social media analysis is performed to support criminal investigations, including gun trafficking,” the New York State Police said in a statement to New York Focus and The Intercept. “The investigative resources and expertise of NYSIC are of critical importance when investigating trafficking networks bringing illegal guns into New York State.”

In addition to social media surveillance, Hochul has also proposed spending $5.3 million to “modernize forensic examination by linking digital devices to crimes.” Among the most common systems for digital forensic analysis are mobile device forensic tools, or MDFTs, which police and prosecutors frequently use to download full, searchable copies of a cellphone’s data. Several police departments and district attorneys in New York, including the NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, already use MDFTs.

When asked whether this budget provision is a reference to MDFTs, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget only said that the funding “will support personal service costs and various non-personal service costs including equipment, software, and computers.” The State Police said that the department “only performs a forensic examination of mobile digital devices when legally authorized to do so,” and that it “is aware of privacy concerns and takes steps to protect personal information in accordance with the law.”

Tracing Guns

Hochul's budget would also increase funding to other fusion center-like police intelligence hubs. If passed as proposed, it would allocate nearly $15 million in part to create a network of “crime gun intelligence centers” across the state.

First established in 2016, crime gun intelligence centers are a U.S. Department of Justice initiative to provide federal funding and guidance for investigative partnerships between local law enforcement and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF. They rely heavily on two databases, which supposedly allow them to trace guns’ use across jurisdictional lines — something Hochul has touted as crucial to combating gun violence.

“Linking data across the state would enable law enforcement to pursue more cases against irresponsible gun dealers and straw purchasers,” the governor’s office wrote in materials accompanying her State of the State address in January. The databases “will ensure the State Police” can “disrupt interstate trafficking of illegal firearms.”

One of the ATF databases uses a hotly contested forensics method known as ballistics imaging to track guns. In 2016 — the same year the Justice Department launched the crime gun intelligence center initiative — a White House advisory council issued a report sounding the alarm on the method’s uncertain accuracy, noting a dearth of peer-reviewed studies on the science behind it, and several courts have since limited the admissibility of evidence using gunshot forensics. The Justice Department has repeatedly ignored the concerns, however, as have proponents of the centers.

According to the State Police, the firearms forensic method “is a presumptive test to find similarities in ballistic evidence that has been recovered at crime scenes and can be used as an investigative tool.” The science “behind it has been validated by multiple national studies,” the police statement said, though it did not cite any specific examples.

Though the centers focus on gun tracing, their investigative work is all-encompassing, and includes the use of surveillance technology. According to the National Crime Gun Intelligence Governing Board, they are responsible for gathering information from cell phone data; gunshot detection systems, like the notoriously inaccurate ShotSpotter; automatic license plate readers, which are prolific in New York state and capable of tracking the movements of virtually anyone with a car; social media; and confidential informants, among other sources.

Because intelligence hubs share information across law enforcement agencies — and largely do so in secret — it’s difficult to know who has access to that information and how they’re able to use it, leading to concerns over civil rights abuses. In 2018, for instance, the Justice Department attempted to insert a line into its crime gun intelligence center grant agreement with the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, that would compel the city to share information on residents’ immigration status with federal agencies, according to a federal lawsuit.

“All we’ve seen from this type of information sharing is not any kind of reduction in crime or increased safety,” said Elizabeth Daniel Vasquez, director of the Science and Surveillance Project at Brooklyn Defender Services, “but instead an overarching cataloging of our Black and brown communities.”

Crime Gun Intelligence Centers

Hochul's statewide series of crime gun intelligence centers would build on an effort launched last year by former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Under his administration, the New York City Police Department established such a center with the ATF, which John Miller, NYPD deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, called “an incredible partnership that allows a seamless flow of information that we haven’t seen before.”

At a press conference last June, Miller laid it out bluntly: “You can just turn to the ATF agents next to you … and say, ‘Hey, this is my question, can you run that data right now?’” (Also stationed at the same hub is another intelligence body, like a fusion center but focused on drug trafficking, which funneled federal money to the NYPD’s post-9/11 Muslim surveillance program, as the Associated Press revealed in 2012.)

Hochul’s plan would scale up the crime gun intelligence center initiative, which is active in more than 30 cities, by establishing one in each of New York state’s 10 regions. The state centers would be under the purview of another state-level, fusion center-modeled system known as the Crime Analysis Center Network, which is overseen by the Division of Criminal Justice Services, a multifunction state agency that straddles the line between administration and law enforcement.

Using high-volume analytics software developed by the weapons manufacturer Raytheon, New York’s crime analysis centers capture and analyze intelligence, which they disseminate among partner state and local police agencies. According to a case study from Raytheon, in 2014, the software used by the Crime Analysis Center Network accessed over 200 data sources, disseminated over a billion records to 166 police agencies per day, and processed more than 1.7 million automatic license plate reader records daily.

In a statement, the Division of Criminal Justice Services pointed out that each crime analysis center is overseen by a board of directors, and said that the boards set “policies for the safe, responsible and effective use of modern crime fighting technologies.”

On March 16, the Justice Department published a solicitation for grant proposals for crime gun intelligence centers. According to the announcement, the department expects to award seven $700,000 grants meant to help fund new or existing centers for three years. The first deadline for the proposals is May 19, less than two months after the state budget is due. Hochul’s office did not respond to a question about whether the governor planned on applying for one of the grants.

It's Just Used As a Pretext

With the state budget due in a matter of days, the window for legislators to debate Hochul’s proposed gun crime budget measures is quickly closing.

The lack of attention is particularly striking when compared to the controversy surrounding the NYC mayor’s policing plans. Although Adams and Hochul have publicly emphasized that they’ve worked together to improve law enforcement information sharing, and his ideas for increased surveillance echo the governor’s, only Adams’s policing plans have been the subject of national media coverage.

Meanwhile, like Adams’s blueprint, Hochul’s plans also call for increased street policing: $13.1 million to expand deployment of the State Police’s Community Stabilization Units, which partner with local police “to combat community-specific crime problems,” as well as added funds for local police departments that adopt aggressive “problem-oriented policing” tactics like “hotspot policing” and “focused deterrence.” But those aspects have garnered little contention.

And with less attention comes less political pressure.

Mamdani, the assemblymember who became aware of the surveillance proposals when reached by New York Focus and The Intercept, expressed alarm at the prospect of increased surveillance, especially social media monitoring. “It’s just used as a pre[text] by which to put more predominantly Black and brown boys into prison,” he said.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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