This Fake Taxi is Just One Of the Many Tools the NYPD Uses to Spy On You


Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press investigative reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman's new book Enemies Within shines a light on the NYPD's extensive surveillance of New York City's Islamic community, which is indiscriminate and likely not so legal. Though done in the name of counter-terrorism, many of the city's residents would doubtless feel a chill down their spine if the full extent of the programs in place were known to the public at large.

Need confirmation? Apuzzo and Goldman make brief mention of a very, very creepy tactic New York's finest are using to keep tabs on Muslims: an innocuous-looking "real yellow cab, complete with an authentic taxi medallion registered under a fake name" loaded with ultramodern surveillance equipment, which apparently just parks outside the city's mosques and listens in to whatever it likes.

The photo above provided to John Cook of Gawker today is that cab, medallion number 6Y11 (presumably since changed). As the operation is kept under strict wraps at all times, it's pretty unclear whether this almost certainly illegal method of surveillance was authorized by anyone other than Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic asks whether the NYPD has become worse than the NSA. Among other things, Friedersdorf highlights that a 4-person CIA team embedded in the police force uncovered in April conducted illegal surveillance operations, that the NYPD does not report the existence or scale of surveillance to the City Council, Congress, or the White House, that the NYPD more or less openly profiles citizens based on a list of "28 ancestries," and that files were started on New Yorkers for pretexts as weak as opposition to American foreign policy.

Even more alarmingly, these files and tactics were then adapted to launch investigations and infiltration into networks unrelated to keeping NYC safe from terrorism, including anti-war rallies and activists protesting NYPD actions in the black community. So yes, this whole spying apparatus can easily be used as a tool to spy on people exercising their First Amendment rights under the flimsiest of pretexts.

Gawker goes into more detail on the NYPD's actions detailed in Enemies Within here. But to summarize:

— The NYPD sends undercover officers known formally as the Demographics Unit but called "Rakers" to infiltrate minority neighborhoods, with their job description explicitly to trawl the community for suspected dissidents.

— There's a separate unit supervising what officers call "mosque crawlers," or informants tasked with keeping tabs on the Muslim community by providing detailed intelligence about Islamic religious services and their congregation. Apuzzo and Goldman write that if the federal government were to conduct such operations, they would be in clear violation of the Privacy Act which forbids surveillance of protected First Amendment activities. The FBI's general counsel, Valeri Caproni, says such practices are "running right up against core constitutional rights," which is why the FBI doesn't do it. But apparently the NYPD is allowed to act with impunity.

— The NYPD actively seeks to pressure Middle Easterners who get into trouble with the law in any capacity into becoming informants. For example, the department asked the Taxi Commission to give them a list of all Pakistani drivers with infractions. Nothing fishy going on here!

— The NYPD conducts surveillance wherever it wants, such as setting up a listening command post in a New Brunswick apartment or sending undercover agents to Massachusetts. No need to worry about those pesky jurisdictions if you're from New York City, right?

What's becoming increasingly clear is that despite widespread criticism of the NYPD for its extensive and dubiously legal programs, New York's Muslims are still viewed by Commissioner Kelly's office as a threat. And they're not the only ones; just look at how the non-Caucasian population of New York has been the victim of racially profiled stop and frisk arrests in ridiculously disproportionate numbers. This goes hand-in-hand with the Bloomberg administration's approach to minority communities not as partners in development to be welcomed and courted for their support, but targets to be feared and harassed.

Bloomberg, for what it's worth, apparently thinks current measures do not go far enough on stop and frisk, and it's safe to assume he feels similarly about his administration's surveillance of the Muslim community as well.

And that's a problem. A suspicious approach to race relations, crime, and terrorism is not a way for New Yorkers to feel comfortable with the authorities, and it's not a particularly smart way of keeping them safe, either. Destroying wholesale a community's relationship with the police department seems like a markedly terrible way to prevent radicalization or crime.

Let's roll back the NYPD's total disregard for the constitutional and civil rights of NYC's minority residents. It's despicable, it's racist, and it won't be long before those who think it keeps them safe find that they, too, can find themselves on the wrong end of a wiretap.