In 60 Minutes feature on NYPD anti-terror arsenal, top cop claims ability to "take down a plane"

Last night's edition of the CBS News program 60 Minutes included an extensive feature on the anti-terror capabilities of New York City's police. In the segment, Commissioner Ray Kelly told Scott Pelley that NYPD has "some means to take down a plane"—a claim clarified and kind-of-debunked by Wired's Noah Shachtman, and at the Christian Science Monitor.

Also featured in the guided terror-tour, the city's massive artificial-intelligence surveillance camera panopticon. But don't worry, it's a good thing. Snip from the 60 Minutes transcript:

Kelly has built something else that most New Yorkers never see. It is nearly impossible now to walk a block in lower Manhattan without being on television. There are 2,000 cameras, and soon there will be 3,000 - all of which feed into this control center housed in a secret location.

Jessica Tisch: Nobody has a system like this.

Jessica Tisch helps run this $150 million surveillance system that monitors the cameras and all those radiation detectors. A powerful computer, using artificial intelligence actually watches all of the cameras at once and it knows if a package has been left in one place too long.

Oh, great. Technology of this kind can always be trusted to work properly. The people operating it can always be trusted not to abuse. Public funds spent on surveillance are always money well spent. And AI is always a good thing, as we know from science fiction.

At Mother Jones, a piece that echoes my reaction as I watched this last night: why was there not one peep, not one, about privacy or civil liberties? They couldn't find anyone who has a problem with the secret "Ancestries of Interest" list? Not a single dissenting voice? Not a word of concern about the NYPD's CIA-assisted surveillance of the city's Muslim community? Writes MoJo's Adam Serwer, the segment felt like "practically a promotional video for the department."

And it aired on the same day this video went viral of an NYPD officer macing protesters in the face—an officer accused of abuses before. Good to know such abuses could never happen with the fancy new lethal technology teased in the 60 Minutes piece.


  1. Even if they did have such an ability it doesn’t seem like it would really help much since their jurisdiction doesn’t go beyond the city limits. Shooting a plane down once it’s over a densely populated area means it’s almost certainly going to kill somebody, just not the people the pilot was aiming for.

  2. “A powerful computer, using artificial intelligence actually watches all of the cameras at once and it knows if a package has been left in one place too long.”

    If it’s any of the commercially available analytics systems available in the surveillance industry, it doesn’t work very well in the real world at all. 

    Three main reasons: 

    1) The ratio of non-actionable events (e.g., someone leaving their backpack on the ground while they walk ten feet over to a storefront window, a restaurant sign moved a few feet down the block) to ones that are valid concerns is so lopsided as to be worthless to investigate. A Chicken Little effect have probably already caused these systems to be more harmful than useful already.

    2) Even if an analytics system detects a truly harmful package / bomb / etc. in an area, the response time to effectively deal with it would likely take so long as to be ineffective.

    3) The amount of brain power, programming, and just general effort put into these analytics is impressive, but the results really aren’t. They just simply aren’t very good yet, and they’ve been worked on a long time.

  3. I think I’d just call in the Air Force or Army for air support- that’s what they do, and their equipment is a lot better. Of course, that would mean letting other people in on the decision whether to shoot or not…

    1. Do you want the Army to setup and run missile batteries 24/7 in Manhattan? Do you think the Air Force maintains CAP flights over NYC?

      It takes time to scramble a jet to the area. More time than is required to for an aircraft on approach to Newark to veer into NYC or Newark. Or the GWB, for that matter.

  4. This is the umpteenth time I’ve seen “panopticon” mentioned in an article somewhere online (all within the last few weeks). For those who are unfamiliar with the term, I suggest visiting

    Having seen this term frequently is a good thing. This suggests we are beginning to have serious discussion and debate on privacy, privacy awareness, and the benefits (or lack thereof) of being under surveillance. 

    One very good article wrote about the panopticon within the context of Facebook…

    Another article (opinion piece) wrote about the panopticon within the context of the DHS….

    An excerpt of the above highlights an interesting analysis which is pertinent to this article…

    In a new book, “Terror, Security, and Money,” professors John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart closely examine that question and, using a set of assumptions weighted in favor of the government, conclude that, to justify the increased post-Sept. 11 spending, we “would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful [attempted Times Square car bomb-type] attacks per year, or more than four per day.”

  5. I fucking hate new york.

    Clarification: not the city or the place or the people, but the police agencies, tacticts and governments.

  6. Is it wrong that my first thought was that on my next visit to NYC I should have a ready supply of lunch bags?

  7. I can’t stand the thought of constantly being under surveillance, and yet, here I am, constantly wishing I had a cctv system in place to identify those breachers of the social contract who don’t pick up after their dogs.

  8. That the powers that be feel the need to watch this closely is not a good sign for privacy and liberty, but it’s not actually a violation of privacy or liberty in itself. If you are walking on a public street, you are publicly visible. Anyone is and always has been free to watch you walk around. Sorry. Cameras just make that easier, but not really different.

    I wonder about the pros and cons of simply turning those 3000 cameras into publicly accessible webcams. Might be cool. Or maybe it would just lower the bar too much for stalking each other.

  9.  But all those “defenses” against terrorists are more likely to be used against citizens than terrorists. The best defense against terrorism is to go on with your lives and refuse to be terrorized. War theorists in the 20’s and 30’s argued that civilian will would break in response to bombing. Did London break after the blitz? Did Hamburg break after Operation Gemorrah? Did any German city break from getting a hundreds of blitzes back?

    They were strong, they struggled on. We must give up our 9/11 fearfest and move on. We have to be stronger than the terrorists. We need to protect ourselves, but the best protection is just not giving a crap. Don’t panic, don’t further erode our liberties.

    We need to show the terrorists we can take a hit and get on with our lives. Terrorism attempts to control behavior and policy through fear. The more we magnify fear and rage  and act in accord with that fear and rage.

    Please, politicians and administrators, be cold and strong. Rise above the fearfest and torn sackcloth. Lead us away from our confusion, fear, and rage. Do not do the work of our enemies for them. We must become cold, strong and indominable.

  10. All this talk about technology being able to “foil” attempts at “terror” ignores the 2010 Times Square van that almost exploded. Who spotted that? NYPD? CIA? FBI? Magical robots who spot stuff like that? Nope! It was spotted by two Vietnam veteran street vendors who work out on the street all day and have no connection to the city.

    Let me repeat that: The NYPD could not detect a van filled with crap set to explode in TIMES #@!%$ SQUARE nearly 10 years after 9-11. Two non-NYPD street vendors did. If there is ever an example of the system not working well, that’s it.

    You know what the value of “small businesses” are as far as neighborhood security goes? Small business owners care about the community and understand the community.  One could never program that kind of knowledge into a computer.

    All the NYPD is doing is creating “theater” to make the tourists feel happy. They are becoming some weird post-modern version of mall cops. I mean, has anyone else seen those NYPD Segways? A cop on a Segway is not security. That is pure theatrics.

  11. Hey, BBers—next time you embed something from CBS, could you please provide some controls so I can turn it off? The only thing I could do was scrub to the end. And of course, CBS removes THAT when the ads are playing. When the second ad came on in less than 2 minutes, I had enough. I’m sure the content was kinda useful, but there are enough ads around the video. I know, you’ve got to make a living, but how is embedding a video with that amount of armor any different than 1950s television ads?

  12. I think it would be technically possible for the city of New York police department to purchase a surface to air missile.  I seriously doubt that the ATF would let it fly though.  The feds have been pretty vigilant when it comes to keeping seriously high tech/dangerous stuff in the hands of the army… though in one case only, the Michigan Army National Guard was allowed to operate some nuclear warhead tipped Nike missiles (the only guard unit I am aware of to get their hands on said equipment).

    What the NYPD was probably alluding to was that they provide some sort of security (or deliver coffee) to an Army or National guard Air Defense unit that is tasked with defending NYC proper.  I would believe in the Easter bunny before I thought that someone would hand the keys to a ground launched AMMRAM battery to the NYPD.

  13. Note: If the NYPD has a high powered sniper rifle, they have a gun that can bring down an airplane. Depending on the plane, it would still take either a great shot and/or multiple hits.  But to bring down a single engine civil aviation plane?  One shot, through the engine, and it is a glider.

    1. Shooting a plane with a sniper rifle is an accident at best unless of course you have script writers, producers and SFX people on your side.

  14. This wouldn’t be a problem, if the feeds were made public. Then, this would be a good thing. The best possible thing, even.

    Having them in private, state-controlled hands is about the worst possible way to manage them.

  15. tl; dr (at work, multitasking) I saw this piece and thought it was just a terrible bit of journalism. Shockingly awful, actually. I thought 60 Minutes actually did, you know, reporting.

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