Street vendors in Queens, New York, July 25, 2018.

© 2018 Rebecca Chowdhury/Human Rights Watch

A proposed rule in New York City would require street food vendors to start using GPS devices. The city’s street vendors, most of whom are immigrants and many of whom are undocumented, already face difficult working conditions. This new proposal would subject them to greater levels of surveillance.

City authorities argue the data collected from these GPS devices will only be used for the purposes of inspecting vendor carts or “as otherwise required by law.” But the city’s proposal does not clarify how the location data the devices generate will be protected or how long it will be retained, raising concerns about how it may be misused or worse, hacked.  

Undocumented immigrants who work as vendors are particularly fearful. United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is investing in expanding its surveillance capabilities to find and deport more people by purchasing cell phone data analysis systems to track real-time location, by using Facebook data and potentially pinning down travel patterns from license plate scanners.

Ms. Oliver (not her real name), formerly an undocumented immigrant from South America, has worked as a vendor selling hot dogs for 35 years. “This should not be allowed in a city the mayor calls a ‘Sanctuary City,’” she said. “This will harm vendors and we reject this proposal. I think they want to surveil us and keep us under their control. We didn’t accept this proposal in the past and we don’t accept it now and we will keep fighting it.”  

Ms. Oliver is a member of the Street Vendor Project, which advocates for vendors. They argue that this proposal enables warrantless surveillance and would be an unconstitutional breach of their fourth amendment rights. The US Supreme Court recently ruled that police need a warrant from a judge before demanding historic location data generated by a cell phone.

Fahd Ahmed, the executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, an organization of working-class South Asian and Indo-Caribbean immigrants, working with nearly 150 street vendors, told Human Rights Watch: “Our members, along with Black and Latinx communities, are often surveilled in their neighborhoods by the NYPD for low-level quality of life ‘crimes,’ surveilled as Muslims, and also criminalized at school by NYPD officers. This policy would represent the expansion of the surveillance of black and brown working-class communities. Street vendors already face harassment and excessive ticketing by the NYPD and these location trackers will only increase the risks they face to make good food.”