• 04.22.14

This Collage Of NYPD’s Photos Of Muslim Businesses Exposes The Banality Of Surveillance

A compendium of New York City’s Muslim-owned pizza places, body shops, and falafel joints shows how far the police went to gather useless intel.

This Collage Of NYPD’s Photos Of Muslim Businesses Exposes The Banality Of Surveillance

There’s little doubt that the legacy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks has had a lasting impact on American civil liberties. The NSA surveillance scandal is just one example of how far certain law enforcement and intelligence agencies are willing to go when it comes to spying on American citizens.


But while NSA officials were trawling through millions of phone records, a unit of the New York City Police Department was engaging in another kind of mass surveillance. As an Associated Press investigation later revealed, an NYPD taskforce called the “Demographics Unit” and later “Zone Assessment Unit” spent several years cataloguing mosques, setting up surveillance cameras at community events, and cultivating a network of informants to dish on the everyday activities of New Yorkers of the Muslim faith.

Last week, the NYPD shuttered the controversial unit. But lest we miss out on understanding the true scope of the NYPD’s efforts, data artist and Dronestream creator Josh Begley went digging into documents obtained by the AP for visual clues. He found hundreds of photos taken of Muslim-owned businesses–pizza places, falafel joints, mosques, and body shops–and threw them into one chilling collage, appropriately titled

“In aggregate, the photographs appear quite banal,” Begley told Co.Exist. “In some ways that’s the terror–our own police department thought it necessary to map entire communities of people for no other reason than who they are or where they worship.”

Begley isn’t the only artist looking to draw attention to the banality of mass surveillance efforts. Photographer Trevor Paglen has been documenting the architecture of U.S. secrecy over the last several years, too. In February, Paglen published a “visual vocabulary” for NSA operations, capturing some of the first-ever aerial photographs of NSA buildings at night.

But while the NYPD’s Zone Assessment unit no longer exists, Begley points out that lawsuits against the NYPD for spying on Muslim communities are still pending. The ACLU contends that the NYPD’s spying program actually extended far beyond the Zone Assessment unit. “A lot of people have been focusing on the mapping unit–but the catalog of violence continues,” Begley says.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.