New York’s Domain Awareness System: Every Citizen Under Surveillance, Coming to a City Near You

February 23, 2016

New York City’s state-of-the-art, Domain Awareness System was developed as a partnership between the NYPD and Microsoft.

The first partnership of its kind in the United States, DAS has evoked comparisons of New York City to ‘the steel ring’ of London.  Still others are convinced carte blanche surveillance has arrived in the U.S. for good.

“We’re not your mom-and-pop’s Police Department anymore,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced at a press conference in 2012.  Originally engineered to combat terrorism, DAS is now the premiere beat-policing tool in the United States.  DAS utilizes existing databases and camera feed to compile a surveillance map New York City.  It can simultaneously detect potential terrorist threats, provide real-time crime updates and analyze data.
The most innovative feature of the NYPD’s DAS is not its surveillance capabilities or its breadth, but rather its origins in the private sector.  A seminal public-private partnership, DAS is the product of a joint venture between Microsoft and the NYPD.
DAS has also been enhanced over the years, a continuing phase of the partnership.  When the NYPD, already on the hunt for security software in 2009, decided to work with Microsoft to create a security system, the result was sophisticated.  Designed with NYPD input, and customized for their use, DAS boasts a user friendly interface, tailored at every stage of production to meet the Department’s unique counterterrorism and policing needs.
Moreover, both Microsoft and the NYPD stand to profit from this joint venture. A revenue-sharing plan devised by the organizations ensure this lucrative partnership will flourish.  The NYPD, estimated to have spent around forty million dollars of its own money developing DAS, will receive thirty percent revenue when DAS programs are created and sold to other law enforcement agencies around the country.
DAS funnels information from the universe of existing law enforcement databases into a program run on the City’s high-speed, “wireless broadband infrastructure.”  Thanks largely to Microsoft’s expertise and engineering, the system is easy to use, and comprehensive in its scope.  Supported by the “New York City Wireless” Network, DAS performs a huge range of functions.  At its release in 2012, it tapped into the feeds of over 3,000 cameras positioned throughout Manhattan, compiling a real-time surveillance map by stitching together all the feeds.  Every car traveling through Manhattan was recorded, and each location data point was included in the map.  If required, police could focus on a particular traveler and ascertain his or her journey from start to finish.  As Commissioner Ray Kelly announced in 2012, DAS can “track where a car associated with a suspect is located, and where it has been in past days, weeks or months,” or “if a suspicious package is left at a location, the NYPD can immediately . . . look back in time and see who left it there” and where that person went.
In addition, license plate scans and radiation detectors are incorporated into DAS.  In 2012, the City placed several hundred license plate readers along roads and bridges across New York, (now a fraction of devices deployed).  The plate readers scanned each car’s plates while simultaneously searching national watch lists.  If a match is registered, police are automatically notified.  Over 2,500 radiation detectors are also mounted throughout the city.  Concentrated on Manhattan, radiation detectors scan each car.  Whether the car contains a medical isotope or more dangerous type of radiation is quickly determined.  Neil Ungerleider of Fast Company live-tweeted Bloomberg’s 2012 press conference, remarking “[N]ypd system identifies exact source of radiation (chemo, meds, industrial… or terrorism) instantly in passing cars.”
Public surveillance is a completely legal policing tool, and has been supported in the Courts throughout common law.  Nevertheless, mass surveillance conducted by DAS and wielded by every beat officer is rife with Fourth Amendment concerns.  What used to mean several police officers surveilling an individual for a period of time, now means an artificial surveillance without limitation.  Furthermore, DAS heritage as a public-private joint venture signifies an erosion of social protections against zealous law enforcement.  Limited resources once restrained police surveillance, but now function as an origin point for partnerships like Microsoft and the NYPD’s.
It is unclear, as this technology spreads across the country, whether any reaction will register from citizens, who are both targeted and protected, by programs like DAS.