White Flags On The Brooklyn Bridge: Massive Surveillance Can’t Even Stop Minor Crimes

On July 22, at 3:30am, in place of the Stars and Stripes that usually fly over the Brooklyn Bridge, bleached-out American flags appeared instead. Despite three surveillance cameras and allegedly round-the-clock police surveillance, four or five people, their identities still unknown, were able to cover up the lights trained on the flags, take them down, and hoist up their own.

Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News
Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

What interests us here is not so much the action itself, as the police reaction.

“If they had brought a bomb up there, it would have been over,” said a high-ranking police source. “If they were able to bring something large enough to cover the lights, then they would have been able to bring some kind of explosive up there.” […] A police helicopter on Wednesday made repeated passes around the Brooklyn Bridge. NYPD radio cars patrolled the spans’ roadways, and police boats scoured the span from the water. New security cameras were also installed, and numerous officers – some from the Intelligence Division and Counterterrorism Bureau – were assigned to foot patrols, walking back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn. [CBS]

New York police are so determined to catch the vandals who replaced the American flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge that they’re using an investigative technique known as “tower dumping” to examine all of the cell phone calls made near the bridge around the time the flags were replaced. […] The NYPD is also using social media data, video, facial recognition technology and approximately 18,000 license plate pictures in trying to solve the case. [IBT]

Horrified at the exposure of a security lapse, the NYPD turned its immense resources toward finding the people who had embarrassed them. The local press described them as “vandals” and quoted local residents as wanting them to be “punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

What law?

At worst, the only crime committed here would be “petit larceny” (for theft of the original flags), defined under New York law as a Class A misdemeanor and subject to a fine of not more than $1,000 or a term of imprisonment not to exceed one year. It seems a meager offense to be pursuing people for. Why did they overreact this way?

The (legitimate) purpose here is obviously not to catch terrorists, because there are no terrorists involved. It’s to catch people possibly guilty of petty larceny, and to do that, it seems the NYPD is willing to sweep up all calls routing through a cellphone tower within the time window of the prank. The next time some authoritarian tells you that law enforcement needs these extraordinary tools in order to catch terrorists, and that police will obviously only use facial recognition and so on to solve the gravest of crimes, remember this story and how bogus that whole line of argument is.

And you know what? It hasn’t worked. It’s over two weeks later, and they still haven’t caught these terrible, terrible criminals.

What is freaking the NYPD out, it seems, is that for all of their vaunted investments in intrusive surveillance technologies, they still can’t even catch them. It is, in its own way, proof positive that intrusive surveillance technologies can’t prevent a terrorist attack on the Brooklyn Bridge. The real crime in the NYPD’s eyes is not the theft; it’s the undermining of their whole, highly profitable surveillance project. Who the pranksters are is utterly unimportant; they did essentially no harm, and using so many extraordinary resources to pursue them is an obvious waste of resources. What other crimes did those cars and boats miss while they were chasing the pranksters?

Am I the only one here to see the obvious analogy with the ineffectiveness and waste that accompanies our national surveillance efforts?

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