Screen shot of Mayor Bloomberg's press conference at LMSI Command Center

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Police Department (NYPD) Chief Ray Kelly, the NYPD, and Microsoft unveiled software yesterday that, with new developed capabilities, transforms the department’s already expansive network of surveillance cameras in Manhattan into a supercomputer system that seems like something straight out of a 1970s science fiction movie.

Described in a press release on the New York City government’s website, the system—the Domain Awareness System (DAS)—is a “sophisticated law enforcement technology solution that aggregates and analyzes existing public safety data streams in real time, providing NYPD investigators and analysts with a comprehensive view of potential threats and criminal activity.” For example, Jennifer Tisch, a director of policy and planning for counterterrorism, demonstrated how DAS would respond to a suspicious package.

A description of the package (a closed “Jack Daniels” box) was shown next to its location. Video feeds within 500 feet of the package’s location that showed the location several minutes before the package was reported to police, so that the system’s operator could determine who or what placed the package there.

The system will “aggregate” and “analyze” data from over 600 radiation detectors, over 100 license plate readers and around 3,000 surveillance cameras throughout the city—some of which are cameras private businesses have which the NYPD can get feeds from by splitting into them at any moment.

The Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI) headquarters, which has also been called the “Ring of Steel,” will house this one-stop shop for incredible amounts of personal data on all the people who walk the sidewalks and drive the streets of Manhattan. This central command location, launched in August 2008, uses a fiber-optic network that has been in place since before September 2011. The city is likely to expand this all-seeing surveillance system to Yankee stadium, Citi Field, the outer boroughs in New York, and areas/airports of concern outside of Manhattan.

The Big Brother network is not only a product of security culture that has suspended the city in a quasi post-traumatic state since the September 11th attacks, but also a capitalist venture that will create a revenue stream for the city. Because it was jointly developed, New York will receive “30 percent of revenues on Microsoft’s future sales of the Domain Awareness System.” This funding, the city claims, “will be used to support innovative and cutting-edge crime-prevention and counter-terrorism programs.” Therefore other cities, particularly major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, etc, can expect solicitation from New York so it can continue to pad or fund its budget with money from the exporting of the city’s state-of-the-art surveillance state operations.

Bloomberg, Kelly and others caution that the city does not use “facial recognition.” This may be true, but Scientific American reported in September 2011 that the “Ring of Steel” utilized “facial capture capabilities.” Particularly at Metropolitan Transit Authority stations, cameras were able to be used to records faces as they came through turnstiles. This gave the NYPD the ability to go back and search for certain facial features when trying to hunt down a suspect.

Additionally, the NYPD is not exactly a wholly benevolent enterprise. The AP uncovered numerous surveillance abuses that involved the targeting of Muslims. It engages in the juking of crime statistics and has gone after individuals who blow the whistle on crime stats manipulation by forcing individuals into psychiatric wards. Its officers also routinely engage in obstructions and violations of freedom of the press, infringe on privacy by racially profiling New York residents through the practice of stop and frisks, and arbitrarily arrest Occupy Wall Street participants who are exercising their First Amendment rights. There is no discernible respect for civil liberties or the rule of law when one examines this widespread corruption.

The supercomputer system is being rolled out with the steadfast certainty that the best authoritarian minds in history have exhibited. However, the police and the city operate on two extremely dubious assumptions: (1) that it is unmistakably true that pervasive surveillance through cameras and sensor technology make cities safer and (2) that the NYPD is an honorable agency that has prevented fourteen terror attacks and so further equipping the city with software and hardware is necessary.

ProPublica‘s Justin Elliott demonstrated recently Commissioner Ray Kelly and his department have not stopped fourteen terror attacks. Elliott found the list of so-called foiled plots included perhaps “three clear-cut terrorist plots,” one a “failed attempt to bomb Times Square by a Pakistani-American in 2010 that the NYPD did not stop.” When looking at the 11 other cases, government informants “played a significant or dominant role” in three of the cases. In four of the cases “law enforcement officials” had questioned the “credibility or seriousness” of the plots. In another four of the cases, the “idea for a plot was abandoned and not pursued beyond discussion.” And the NYPD did not appear to play a “major role in breaking up most of the alleged plots on the list.”

An ACLU of Northern California report, “Under the Watchful Eye,” describes how a study in Glasgow, Scotland, found “reductions in crime” were “no more significant than those in control areas without the camera locations.” A 2002 study conducted by the British Home Office that was broader found, “In the city centre and public housing setting, there was evidence that closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras led to a negligible reduction in crime of about 2 percent in the experimental areas compared with the control areas.” Yet another study out of the University of Leicester in England concluded surveillance cameras have “generally failed” to “reduce crime.”  The cameras also do not lead to people feeling more safe; in fact, the presence of cameras creates fear that they might be victims of crime because they think the cameras denote an unsafe area.

Mark Schlosberg, Police Practices Director of the ACLU of Northern California, has said, “The use of surveillance cameras, unfortunately, comes at the expense of proven crime reduction measures such as better lighting, foot patrols, and community policing. In this sense, throwing money at video surveillance actually detracts from law enforcement’s efforts to reduce crime.” However, this system has the capacity to make “private stakeholders” like the Bank of New York, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, CitiGroup and the two developers, Microsoft and the NYPD, money. The perception that this will actually reduce crime is critical to the business venture and, since the city—in fact, no US city—is under any obligation to prove the increased surveillance state infrastructure reduces crime, the project that decades ago would have been part of a dystopian nightmare can be built and expanded.

Historically, according to a summary from the ACLU of Northern California, this is how surveillance of this nature has been viewed:

The concept of using surveillance to deter crime and achieve a level of social control is not new. Sociologist Jeremy Bentham developed the theory in the late 18th century and it is best represented by his concept of a “Panopticon,” a model prison where prisoners could be observed, but they could not see who was watching and tell when they were being watched. “The psychological objective of such a system was that the subjects of surveillance would believe that their only logical option was to conform. thus each individual would become their own overseer.”

Two centuries later, this concept of surveillance was extended beyond the walls of the prison and out into society. Michel foucault in 1977 argued that the mechanism and principles used to control prisoners in Bentham’s Panopticon could be similarly applied to citizens throughout society. Orwell also elaborated on that idea in chilling detail: “every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police.”

When Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949, Orwell’s tale seemed far-fetched. Futuristic films from recent years such as “Minority Report” and “Gattaca” still appear fanciful, but the concepts and theories these stories illustrate have started to be put into practice. Within the last decade, the installation of surveillance cameras on public streets and in public parks has extended the eye of government into the public’s daily life. What is more, video surveillance is being combined with other technologies, such as face recognition, to expand government monitoring of the public even further.

This new system is definitely similar to the system in the CBS show “Person of Interest,” that is based in New York. The show’s two main characters use a databased called The Machine that can collect information from anywhere. It is using analytics or algorithms to look for patterns and uncover what people are doing. In the show, The Machine has access to far more records or data than DAS. It’s more similar to the Total Information Awareness system that John Poindexter of Iran-Contra infamy wanted to build, which have now probably been folded into the massive spy center being built by the National Security Agency (NSA) in Bluffdale, Utah. Of course, with people like Kelly and Bloomberg in positions of authority, the erosion of civil liberties only escalates; and a decade or so from now phone calls, credit card records, Internet searches, etc, could be in the database the NYPD is able to access.

Nation journalist wrote about how China was building a high-tech police state ahead of the 2008 Olympics that would be ready for export. She described a social experiment that was unfolding in the city of Shenzhen where over the past two years around 200,000 surveillance cameras had been installed throughout the city—many in public spaces disguised as lamp posts. The CCTVs were to be connected to a “single, nationwide network, an all-seeing system” that would “be capable of tracking and identifying anyone who comes within its range — a project driven in part by US technology and investment.”

This unprecedented implementation, Klein suggested, would serve an additional purpose of protecting “free markets” from any outbreaks of democracy:

Remember how we’ve always been told that free markets and free people go hand in hand? That was a lie. It turns out that the most efficient delivery system for capitalism is actually a communist-style police state, fortressed with American “homeland security” technologies, pumped up with “war on terror” rhetoric. And the global corporations currently earning superprofits from this social experiment are unlikely to be content if the lucrative new market remains confined to cities such as Shenzhen. Like everything else assembled in China with American parts, Police State 2.0 is ready for export to a neighborhood near you.

Widespread surveillance that has previously been in place in US cities temporarily when so-called national special security events occur is now on a path to normalization. With the knowledge that a generation is used to the presence of cameras, used to providing personal information social networking platforms like Facebook and used to invasive searches at airports by Transportation Security Administration personnel, the corporate players involved need not worry about indoctrinating a nation. They need not bother with a society that will be worried about threats to anonymity, freedom of association or assembly. They need not worry that citizens will wonder if this will be used to suppress democracy by monitoring and preventing future Occupy Wall Street and OWS-like protests.

For a moment, the state-of-the-art aspects of this system—the thought that this is something out of a movie—might cross citizens’ minds. That thought will then become insignificant, leaving the city to expand the omnipotent supercomputer system and sell off technological prototypes to other American cities. What movie directors and historically renowned authors once imagined and brought to life in word and through film will now be a near reality. And, while no official will ever publicly state that this system is used for social control, the inescapable byproduct of such surveillance state expansion will be less freedom, less liberty, and a new addition to the elite’s profitable grand illusion of security.