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NY Court Tells NYPD It Can't Hide Surveillance Of Protesters Behind A Glomar Response


Another lawsuit over the NYPD's surveillance of First Amendment-protected activities continues. Records requests by Black Lives Matter offshoot Millions March detailing surveillance methods used by the NYPD against protesters have been met with the usual opacity by the PD. It has done what it always does in cases like these: throw FOIL exemptions around and stonewall the hell out the request. The PD has also added a few Glomar responses to the mix, refusing to confirm or deny the existence of sought records.

Fortunately, the judge presiding over the case -- Arlene Bluth -- isn't in a charitable mood. Greeted with the NYPD's incessant opacity, the judge has called bullshit -- repeatedly -- over the course of a 14-page ruling [PDF]. The plaintiffs are seeking records related to the NYPD's use of surveillance tech targeting cellphones. It is well known the NYPD owns and has access to Stingray devices. What these records would show is the use of Stingrays in an untargeted manner -- either to gather cellphone identifiers indiscriminately or simply to disrupt phone service during protests by funneling all phones in the area into the NYPD's cell tower spoofer.

The NYPD has given the plaintiffs a Glomar response -- a term that derives from national security efforts at the federal level. There are a few good reasons why a Glomar might be deployed, but none of them fit the NYPD's blanket refusal to confirm or deny existence of these records.

Although this affidavit provides ample reasons why a FOIL request for counter-terrorism information might merit a Glomar response, it does not provide any explanation for how it applies to this case. This proceeding concerns respondent's alleged efforts to interfere with the cell phones of protesters and Miller fails to address why a Glomar response should be available in the context of protestors. Miller does not claim that these protestors were affiliated with the terrorists he lists in his affidavit, that these protestors engaged in behavior that might be connected to terrorism or that there might be terrorists hidden among the protesters. In fact, Miller does not allege that these protesters engaged in any terrorism-related behavior whatsoever.

The NYPD also claimed the Glomar response was valid because -- and let me see if I can get this straight -- the described deployment of cell tower spoofers against protesters would violate the law. I don't know how the NYPD imagined this stunted, malformed argument might work in court, but I'm sure it didn't think it would only further undercut its Glomar response. Here's the court's response to whatever the hell this assertion is:

Miller appears to insinuate that deliberately using technology to interfere with protestors' cellphones would violate the law. If that were the case then, of course, respondent should be able to deny that records exist because respondent, according to respondent, cannot interfere with a lawful protest. Revealing that the NYPD follows the law would not provide aid or comfort to terrorists.

That's if the NYPD is following the law. If it isn't…

Of course, if respondent is using technology on protestors and, by its own account, violating the law, then it cannot hide exposure of that fact through a Glomar response.

Even if deployment was lawful and not targeting protesters but still managed to disrupt their service, the NYPD still can't use a Glomar response. The court points out that other exemptions exist that might cover the content of these documents, but even that would need far more justification than the NYPD has provided to this point.

For all its claims of disrupted investigations and comforted terrorists, the NYPD cannot convince the court that records detailing cellphone disruption during protests fits any of the exemptions and/or blanket neither deny/confirm responses the NYPD has provided.

The Court recognizes that respondent does not have to disclose how it conducts criminal investigations. But this is not about a criminal investigation or a counterintelligence operation. It arises from reports of protestors who claim that their cellphones are suddenly unable to function while in the middle of a protest. That possibility, that respondent is interfering with protestors' ability to communicate with each other, is a serious concern ripe for the use of FOIL.

The NYPD is offering nothing more in defense of its opacity than "trust us." The court asks, "Why should we?"

Ultimately, respondent wants petitioners and this Court to simply trust respondent that it is not violating the law by interfering with a constitutionally-protected protest. But that notion is anathema to FOIL. FOIL is intended to shed sunlight on government actions. The very notion of a Glomar response (declining to confirm or deny the existence of records) contradicts the purpose of disclosure under FOIL.

The ruling also pokes holes in another transparency dodge: the "trade secrets" exemption the NYPD offered up more than a year after its original Glomar response. Not only does the court say it's a bit too late to adding additional exemptions to the mix, but the trade secrets exemption argument is a non-starter to begin with.

If the prices and the product features are trade secrets, then every single contract a governmental agency enters into would be exempt from FOIL. Every contract contains information about pricing and, where a product is purchased, the contract presumably also has details about the product. It may lay out what the product is for, what its capabilities are and how it can be used. These are not trade secrets…

After letting the NYPD know it needs to either confirm or deny existence of the Glomared records (and letting it know it will be on the hook for the plaintiffs' legal fees), the court again drills this point home: unjustified invocations of national security concerns are not acceptable.

Terrorism-related concerns cannot be used to justify the use of a Glomar response in every FOIL context. The petitioners here are protestors, engaging in First-Amendment protected activity. The only connection between protestors and terrorists appears to be that both groups use cell phones. But terrorists and protestors and, for that matter, New York City residents use cell phones and computers and social media and a variety of other technologies. A Glomar response cannot be used in every instance in which a terrorist might use the same technology as a protestor or a New York City resident.

[...]

To embrace the use of Glomar response here would shut off all public inquiry and require respondent to hold itself accountable. That notion runs counter to the very purpose of freedom of information statutes. [...] FOIL is not about blind trust -- it is about holding government officials accountable. That principle is fundamental to a democratic society and cannot be set aside so easily.

The NYPD can't be happy it's been told it isn't a law unto itself. But it's probably going to take a lot more rulings like this to make minute inroads into its culture of opacity.


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