Privacy groups are outraged at New York's plan to install cameras in all subway cars in a bid to stop crime. The proposal, announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday, is an expansion of an earlier pilot project that the governor said was “working very well.” Under her expanded plan, there will be two cameras in each of New York’s 6,455 subway cars.
But civil liberties groups are raising alarms about the imminent plan, saying it is yet another example of an erosion of privacy. In a statement shortly after the speech, Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, condemned Hochul’s approach, describing it as “surveillance theater” that would put New Yorkers on “an express train to authoritarianism.”
The ACLU in New York also criticized Gov. Hochul's plans. "New York City is already home to tens of thousands [of] surveillance cameras and there’s no evidence this massive expansion of subway cameras will improve safety," it said in statement. "Real public safety comes from investing in our communities, not from omnipresent government surveillance."
Hochul, who made the announcement in a subway maintenance facility in Queens, said as ridership of the subway continues to slowly return to pre-pandemic levels, many remain concerned about transit crime. “That is why we are leaning into finding strategies and technologies to make sure that we address [it] just as we are doing here today,” she said. “If you think Big Brother is watching you on the subways, you are absolutely right, that is our intent,” she added.
But Cahn argues the proposal is "ripe for abuse by the NYPD."
"Big Brother’s spying never prevented crime before, and it won’t start now," his statement read. Earlier this month, Cahn's New York-based organization expressed concern about another plan, which would phase out the iconic MetroCard in 2023 and replace it with the digital OMNY vending machine and cards. The group called for the subway operator to guarantee that riders would still be able to use cash to pay for OMNY cards and shield riders' data from agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The subway system already has about 10,000 cameras, but until now, their reach has been contained to the platform and mezzanine. The city’s buses also have cameras installed. The mayor has also deployed more police officers on subways. But critics have pointed to the fact that during April's subway shooting, in which 10 people were injured by gunfire, existing cameras did not stop the crime, and it was later revealed the cameras in some stations were faulty. "This tech has failed us too many times to count," Cahn wrote. "In April, when the cameras were supposed to keep us safe, they couldn’t even capture the subway shooter’s image."
Despite being based in New York City, the governor of New York, not the mayor, has had overall responsibility for the subway system since 1968. During her speech, Hochul said the cameras would be paid for with a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security and the subway’s operator, Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The cameras would not be monitored live, but footage will be used to conduct investigations.
Although Hochul said that transit crime in New York was down compared to pre-pandemic levels, recent high-profile killings on the subway — including the fatal shooting of a man in May and fatal pushing of a woman onto the tracks in Times Square in January — have contributed to the public perception that New York's transit system is unsafe.
Hochul, a Democrat, is currently running for re-election in New York. Her opponent, Republican Lee Zeldin, has made addressing crime a key part of his campaign.
This story was updated to include comment from the ACLU.