New York City subways are getting an upgrade. No, not more trains, more stops, fewer delays, or updated stations, but instead a ton more surveillance cameras. Every car in the subway system will soon be equipped with two cameras, Governor Kathy Hochul announced on Tuesday.
“You think Big Brother’s watching you on the subways? You’re absolutely right. That is our intent,” the Governor said during a news conference in a Queens subway yard. “We are going to be having surveillance of activities on the subway trains, and that is going to give people great peace of mind.”
The addition of cameras on train cars is the expansion of pilot program which began in June. In the test phase, about 100 cars were equipped with cameras. The security push followed a spate of highly publicized subway attacks, including an April mass shooting on a Manhattan-bound N train. During that attack, a single gunman shot 10 people. Miraculously, nobody was killed, though multiple people were injured.
Following the shooting, NYC also increased the amount of police officers in subway stations. And Mayor Eric Adams announced that he was considering adding gun detection technology to stations as well.
The 472 subway stations throughout the city already have surveillance cameras, including the Sunset Park station where the April shooting began. However, the city claimed the relevant cameras weren’t working properly at the time of the incident. The suspect was only arrested after he reportedly turned himself in.
In her announcement, Hochul implied that the cameras were also intended to boost ridership, as well as security. She referenced the relatively low number of riders returning to the subway in the wake of the pandemic. On September 14, daily ridership surpassed 3.7 million for the first time since March 2020, she said. However, total ridership is still hovering around 67% of what it was pre-Covid.
Though she admitted a portion of that flatlining return is likely due to the staying power of work-from-home or hybrid office arrangements, Hochul attributed some of the stalled ridership to fears of crime on transit.
Yet, the situation she described was one of decreasing crime—down 4% from 2019 numbers and 21% from June to September of 2022.
“I’m optimistic, and I believe these’ll be a deterrent to people,” said Hochul. The Governor also claimed the cameras would also make it easier to solve crimes that do occur, allowing law enforcement to quickly identify perpetrators.
Adding cameras to every car will cost an estimated $5.5 million. That funding comes, in part, from the Department of Homeland Security, with $2 million from DHS’ Urban Area Security Initiative. Another $3.5 million for cameras is coming out of the MTA’s own Action Plan, according to a press release from the Governor’s office.
Hochul preemptively dismissed potential concerns about the increased surveillance, adding “If you’re concerned about this, the best answer is don’t commit any crimes on the subways, then you won’t have any problems.” Which is a pro-surveillance argument so classic and critiqued, it has it’s own Wikipedia page.
But the newly announced cameras don’t bring everyone more “peace of mind.” “New Yorkers want safety, not surveillance,” said Albert Fox Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), a non-profit advocacy organization, in a statement. Cahn described the cameras as “surveillance theater,” referencing the failure of cameras to prevent the April shooting, or aid in the investigation, and added that they’re “ripe for abuse by the NYPD.”
In an emailed statement to Gizmodo, Daniel Schwarz , a technology strategist at the New York Civil Liberties Union echoed Cahn’s concerns. “There’s no evidence this massive expansion of subway cameras will improve safety.”
The civil rights organization also pointed out that Hochul and the city haven’t shared any information about the cameras and software system, who will have access to the footage, how long and how it will be stored, and other issues relevant to privacy. “Living in a sweeping surveillance state shouldn’t be the price we pay to be safe. Real public safety comes from investing in our communities, not from omnipresent government surveillance,” Schwarz wrote.
Past assessment of the effects of security cameras on crime rates has been mixed. In certain cases, security cameras do seem to deter crime, particularly property crime and petty theft, according to a 2020 report by the Urban Institute. But in the Urban Institute’s own experiment in Milwaukee, they found that more crimes seemed to occur at intersections with cameras. Though, cameras did seem to help with clearance of violent crimes in that case.
Meanwhile, the expansion of surveillance technology everywhere has concerning implications for fundamental freedoms like people’s rights to protest, student civil liberties, and data privacy.