Enhanced 911 calls data raises concerns

The city signed onto a $9 million upgrade of its 911 call centers this week that the Bloomberg administration says will greatly increase first responders' ability to receive and sort through emergency data. The upgrade allows responders to bundle information from emergency calls and send it out to cops in the field and prosecutors in a courtroom if needed in a criminal investigation. The deal comes on the heels of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's visit to London, where he expressed a desire to duplicate its "Ring of Steel" surveillance system that blankets that city in a web of cameras providing real-time video feeds to law enforcement personnel. The city had already announced plans to install 3,000 cameras by the end of next year in lower Manhattan to read license plates of cars entering the city. The new technology will capture, manage and analyze information sent by citizens from phones, cameras, video cameras and computers to 911.

Matthew Kelly, a spokesman for the mayor, stressed that the new technology is not yet coordinated with the new surveillance cameras.

"The city has developed a comprehensive enhancement of emergency communications, called the Emergency Communications Transformations Project, and as part of that, the NICE contract will improve 911 call capture, logging, storage and retrieval," he said. "It will aid the Police Department in their ability to investigate crimes and the district attorneys' ability to prosecute them."

The NYPD declined to give specifics on how the new system, which is already being installed, would function. NICE Systems, an Israel-based company charged with designing the new system, refused to comment for amNewYork.

The new contract worried civil liberties advocates.

"The surveillance system in New York is thick and growing thicker by the minute," said Bill Brown of the Surveillance Camera Players, who pointed out all the ways people could be watched in the city. "This thing would be a honey pot for hackers, terrorists, and people with a grudge. Everything you ever wanted to know about anybody would be in one centralized database."

Others wondered how effective the system would turn out to be.

"These information companies are always trying to get their systems implemented because there is a lot of money in it," said Dr. Britt Minshall, a former law enforcement officer and member of INTERPOL. "They are like the highway lobby who make sure no money goes to mass transit. You get to the point where if you have too much information, it's like having no information."

(Written by David Freedlander, amNewYork Staff Writer, and published in the 5 October 2007 issue of AM New York.)

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