Privacy Groups React to Expanded Subway Surveillance Program



Cameras at Columbus Circle station. Photo by Anvita Patwardhan

Privacy watchdogs are reacting to Governor Kathy Hochul’s recent announcement that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will be installing two cameras in every subway car.

“You think Big Brother is watching you on the subway? You’re absolutely right,” Hochul said during a news conference last month, as she explained that $2 million from a federal grant program will be directed toward the purchase of 5,400 cameras for 2,700 subway cars. The move is expected to supplement the surveillance of all 472 MTA subway stations, which already have cameras.

The governor said she hopes the project will increase passenger confidence in mass transit and it comes shortly after an MTA survey conducted in June found personal safety is one of riders’ biggest concerns.

Currently, ridership is at about 60% of pre-pandemic levels and the per capita crime rate on transit property has increased, according to agency data. Despite this, the number of felonies including homicide, robbery and assault that took place within the subway system has decreased slightly this year, from 1,774 felony crimes through September 2019, compared to 1,708 through September of this year, New York City Police Department data indicates.

Recent subway shootings, including the April 12 N train shooting when 10 people were injured from direct gunfire, along with smaller quality-of-life offenses, have contributed to low ridership confidence.

Anthony Quach, a software engineer who regularly commutes to Meta’s Midtown office, said that he thinks cameras on the subway “could potentially help” with his safety concerns. But he said his main concern is that someone willing to commit a violent crime would probably proceed regardless of the consequences.

Earlier this month, reports indicate a 57-year-old straphanger received a minor cut on his arm and was pepper-sprayed after he refused to give a panhandler money while riding a northbound 1 train near the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station, the city’s eighth busiest subway station.

John Zapata, a writer at Fox, said he commutes through the station frequently for work. He said that he has previously been robbed on the subway.

“I want to be safe going back home and going to work, so I take a taxi sometimes. Or the bus,” said Zapata. While he believes that subway cameras are a good starting point, he also believes there should be a larger police presence on the subway.

According to MTA data, there are a total of 6,455 subway cars. Currently, 100 cars are equipped with 200 cameras because of a pilot program that began in the summer. The governor’s new initiative will expand the pilot, eventually costing $5.5 million. Data related to the pilot program was not shared with the public.

Some civil rights and privacy organizations are calling the move impractical. “New York City is already home to tens of thousands surveillance cameras,” said New York Civil Liberties Union technology and privacy strategist Daniel Schwarz in a statement. “And there’s no evidence this massive expansion of subway cameras will improve safety.”

William Owen, communications manager for Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, an advocacy group, said he’s concerned more surveillance technology will disproportionately affect commuters of color. “I worry that this will be simply another form of digital stop-and-frisk,” he said. Owen referenced the use of facial recognition on Black Lives Matter protestors in the summer of 2020.

Owen also believes the initiative might detract from its stated mission. “Surveillance is not about crime prevention but perception. In reality, it will only backfire,” he said, adding, “by feeding tabloids with images of the subway at its worst, they exacerbate fear.”

Jerome Greco, a digital forensics and cybersecurity attorney at The Legal Aid Society, said that installing cameras is less about safety and more about a response to decreased ridership, which is an effect of Covid and remote work. “If you were to be attacked on the subway,” he said, “that camera is not going to prevent that attack.”

In response, the MTA said it’s an essential move. “Cameras are ubiquitous in daily life, in stores, on sidewalks, in offices, at airports, on commuter railroads, on buses and now in subway cars,” said Communications Director Tim Minton in a statement.

As for commuters like Quach, he said while cameras are a start, there needs to be “some more mental health programs, getting to the root of why people do these things in the first place.”

The project is intended to cover the entire fleet of subway cars by 2025.