Is the NYPD ‘Ring of Steel’ Effective? And Is It Worth the Cost to Privacy?

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Imagine this image, set to the tune of the "Somebody's Watching Me" cover from the Geico ads. Photo: Getty Images

Mayor Bloomberg touted the "Ring of Steel" (nicknamed after a similar system in London) as a key element in fighting terrorists by scaring them off, which he has said is the city's "No. 1 priority." Commissioner Kelly is particularly fond of the technology: He has expressed his desire to extend his roving eyes to all of Manhattan and has touted video surveillance as both an investigative tool and a crime deterrent.

But while it's cheaper than hiring more officers, it's not clear that it actually reduces crime. In the U.K., which has more security cameras than any other country in Europe, police officials admit they have no preventative effect on violent crime. Only 3 percent of street robberies caught on camera in London were solved. Although there have been no studies to date about the effect of video cameras on terrorism, the 7/7 London bombings were recorded. Except that no one was monitoring the live feeds, and it took investigators months to sort through the footage.

"Cameras are not going to deter terrorism," says Jennifer King, a doctoral student at UC-Berkeley's School of Information. In the event of a terrorist attack, cameras will at best provide forensic evidence of the event, as they did at the still-unsolved bombing of an Armed Forces Career Center in Times Square last year.

After the NYPD secretly recorded license plates downtown, the department issued privacy guidelines for the system earlier this year. However, the New York Civil Liberties Union claims the guidelines are not legally binding and provide no safeguard against potential abuses, and the group has filed two Freedom of Information lawsuits seeking more data about the Ring of Steel.

The NYPD has a checkered history when it comes to respecting citizens' privacy. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, an NYPD helicopter camera recorded an intimate moment between a couple on a rooftop. In 2004, police footage of a young man's suicide in a Bronx housing project was leaked to a pornographic website. "The thing about video is that it's not hard to misuse it," says King.

Despite these concerns, especially after the recent terrorism busts, there's little political will to challenge it, and it hasn't been brought up in the election. "We're well on our way to the Police Department doing anything it wants to do as long as it says it's in the name of securing the city," notes John Jay College of Criminal Justice lecturer Eugene O'Donnell. But Bloomberg isn't concerned. "It's just ridiculous people who object to using technology," the mayor says.