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Surveillance cameras in New York subway cars: Whose voices are heard?

“You think Big Brother’s watching you on the subways? You're absolutely right.”

Interior of a subway car

This was originally published as part of the September 26 Privacy News, but it's long enough that it deserves its own post.

The ‘Surveillance Solutionism’ of Putting Cameras in NYC Subways

Alfred Fox Cahn, Wired (

“You think Big Brother’s watching you on the subways?” New York Governor Kathy Hochul said at a news conference at a Queens subway yard on September 20. “You’re absolutely right.” The proclamation came amid her announcement of a new state program to pay for two cameras in each of the city’s more than 6,400 subway cars.

Hochul was very explicit about the goal: "we’re going to be having surveillance of activity on the subway trains, and that’s going to give people great ease of mind.” New York's subway ridership is down 25-40% since the pandemic, and some polls suggest fear of crime is one of the reasons.  As Cahn, founder of STOP (Surveillance Technology Oversight Project) points out, though, surveillance cameras don't actually decrease crime.  Case in point:

In recent years, the transit agency has spent tens of millions of dollars on cameras for every subway entrance. But when a deranged man opened fire on a packed subway car in April, the cameras didn’t work. In the aftermath, as the MTA and NYPD tried to throw each other under the bus for the failure, neither agency was willing to question their premise that the cameras were needed in the first place.

This story got a lot of attention, and it's interesting to look at the various coverage. Who simply includes talking points from Gov. Hochul and her allies? Who includes perspectives from civil rights and civil liberties perspectives questioning the value of surveillance ? Which experts are quoted?  

For example, Black Star News' CPR Denounces NYPD’s Expansion of Policing, Surveillance In Subway quotes Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) spokesperson Darian X, Lead Campaign Organizer with Brooklyn Movement Center:

"While this Mayoral administration is convinced that using decades-old failed Broken Windows policing strategies like increased surveillance and stops will provide safety, New Yorkers of color - particularly Black & Latinx New Yorkers - know all too well that these tactics only lead to police abuse and harassment, and increase the potential for encounters to escalate to brutality and even killing of New Yorkers they claim to be protecting....

Instead of fixing our crumbling subway infrastructure, restoring resources for education, housing and health services and ensuring infrastructure improvements, the Mayor has decided to invest into a dangerous attack on the city's most vulnerable communities. This expansion of police and cameras throughout our city and on our subways will only multiply the harm that the NYPD can do to New Yorkers who are just going about their daily lives. We have been down this road, and it leads to a dead-end with more harm and violence, not less."

Yeah really.  But Darian X isn't quoted in any of the other coverage – and neither are any other POC experts.  Funny how that works.  Here's a look at eight other articles and who they quote.

  • MTA to install 2 surveillance cameras on every subway car, Stephen Nessen, Gothamist (, with quotes from Daniel Schwartz of New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) (“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)” and MTA spokesman Tim Minton ("cameras are ubiquitous in daily life, in stores, on sidewalks, in offices, at airports, on commuter railroads, on buses, and now in subway cars").
  • MTA to Install Security Cameras in NYC Subway Cars to Deter Crime, NBC New York (, with perspectives from MTA Chairman Janno Lieber, insisting that these new cameras won't break down; and NYCLU who unsurprisingly is concerned there might be privacy issues.  No, ya think?
  • New York City subway trains getting security cameras, Maysoon Khan, The Associated Press (, with a quote from NYCLU's Schwartz.
  • ‘Big Brother’s watching you’: MTA to install surveillance cameras on every NYC subway car by 2025, with quotes from MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber ("If you prey on New Yorkers or you commit vandalism or damage MTA facilities, we’re going to have pictures of you, and the NYPD is going to find you, gonna catch you, and gonna punish you"); STOP's Cahn; Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the MTA’s in-house rider advocacy arm the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee ("The safer people feel, the more likely they are to ride”); and passengers Jason Ghiassian ("“Safety comes first"), Sue ("I don’t [worry about privacy concerns] because safety is more important to me”), and Ray Carlo (“It doesn’t make any change,” said Ray Carlo. “How long ’til NYPD shows up? Cameras don’t stop a murder, right?”)
  • NYC Subways Are Getting a 'Big Brother' Addition, Lauren Leffer on Gizmodo (, with quotes from NYCLU's Schwartz and STOP's Cahn.  Hey wait a second, I'm noticing a pattern here!
  • MTA will install cameras in every subway train car to curb crime, increase safety, WABC (, with quotes from New York City Transit President Richard Davey, NYPD Chief of Department Ken Corey, and "an expert with the New York Civil Liberties Union."  Hmm, I wonder who that could be?
  • New York City Will Get Cameras in All Subway Cars to Fight Crime, Skylar Woodhouse, Bloomberg (, with a quote from MTA chief executive officer Janno Lieber (“We’re going to have pictures of you, and the NYPD is going to find you. You will be caught.”)
  • New York City Subway System to Install Security Cameras in Train Cars, Ana Ley in the New York Times (, with quotes from Katheryn Wilde of Partnership for New York City discussing how increased police presence on the subways makes people feel safer; boxing coach Bardia Gharib, who drives his son to school instead of letting him take public transit; STOP's Cahn; Chief Jason Wilcox, the head of the Police Department’s transit bureau, discussing the 160% increase in tickets for "quality of life" offenses such as drinking, urination, stretching out over more than one seat; shoe salesman Zaire Maignan, who thinks cameras will make people feel safer; and university administrative assistant Kalila Abdur-Razzaq, with a great point:
“I just don’t have a lot of faith that they’ll be used in a way that will help people taking the train,” Ms. Abdur-Razzaq, 23, said. “They’re probably going to use it for crimes that affect the M.T.A. financially, not crimes that affect riders.”

Image credit: R38R40, via Wikipedia Commons.  licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.