Big Brother Comes To Lower Manhattan

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The New York City Police Department has been operating a camera that scans the license plates of cars passing just blocks from ground zero, a newspaper reported Monday.

The camera is an example of the kind of technology the NYPD hopes to use to create a high-tech security ring around Lower Manhattan, the New York Daily News reported. City officials pointed out that the camera, also not far from City Hall, is currently in a test phase.

Sources told the Daily News that the camera - a prototype for the city's proposed "Ring of Steel" surveillance system - has been used intermittently over the last six months. It scans the rear license plates of vehicles and transmits those images via wireless to a computer which compares the plates against a database.

"It is not storing data at this point or being used for any law enforcement purposes," said NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, adding that the data created through tests of the camera was not stored.

It is the only camera of its kind attached to a fixed spot, though some squad cars have similar technology.

"It worked as it was designed to work, which is that it was able to read most license plates," said Paul Cosgrave, commissioner of the city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the camera raises new questions about privacy.

"These are license plates of innocent people, doing nothing more suspicious than coming and going," she said. "In a free society, people should be free to come and go as they please, without worrying about being recorded by the New York police department."

"It's too much like Big Brother," she said.

An $81.5 million plan to safeguard Lower Manhattan and parts of midtown modeled after security measures in London's financial district, would feature surveillance cameras, as well as barriers that could automatically block streets.

Plans call for the installation of 3,000 cameras below Canal Street by the end of next year.

The camera is similar to the type which would be used in Mayor Bloomberg's proposed congestion pricing system, in which drivers would be charged for entering parts of Manhattan.

Bloomberg, visiting London to study that's city system of closed-circuit surveillance cameras, said residents of big cities like New York must accept that they are under constant watch by video cameras. He said they are a necessary protection in a dangerous world.

"In this day and age, if you think that cameras aren't watching you all the time, you are very naive," Bloomberg told reporters at London's City Hall.