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New York Surveillance City: 15K cameras can feed facial recognition systems

Groups call for bans and new laws

biometric identification facial recognition

Amnesty International has released the results of a crowdsourced investigation into surveillance in New York City which found that the police department has the ability to track people across Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx via 15,280 surveillance cameras using facial recognition. Civil rights groups are calling for bans on some of the surveillance practices which they allege discriminate against certain groups.

More than 5,500 digital volunteers from around the world worked together to tag the 15,000 cameras at intersections in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn, which together contain almost half of all NYC’s intersections. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) can track people through these cameras by using biometric software.

The software is powered by comparisons with millions of images held in databases. Amnesty states that many of these are scraped from sources such as social media without users’ knowledge or consent. The report also states that this technological approach is recognized as “amplifying racially discriminatory policing and can threaten the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and privacy.”

The most surveilled neighborhood of the three boroughs is East New York in Brooklyn, where the population is 54.4 percent Black, 30 percent Hispanic and 8.4 percent white according to census data. Crime figures are not included in the report.

The report also suggests that facial recognition was used to identify and track a participant in a Black Lives Matter protest in the summer of 2020. It states that the NYPD has used facial recognition in 22,000 cases since 2017, half of which were in 2019.

Calls to pass three bills

Civil rights campaigners are currently urging New York State legislators to pass three bills to curb the use of surveillance in the state. In an op ed in the Daily News, Aly Panjwani, the policy and advocacy manager at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), and Jose Chapa, the senior policy associate at the Immigrant Defense Project, demand urgent action before the current legislative session comes to an end.

Panjwani and Chapa are calling for the passing of legislation to ban ‘rogue DNA databases’, ban the use by law enforcement of biometric surveillance and end the collaboration between law enforcement and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). They consider the three methods to be infringing privacy and enabling abuse by law enforcement, particularly vulnerable groups such as immigrants.

“While New York State itself cannot change ICE’s practices, it can inhibit the tools the agency has at its disposal,” write the activists. They consider local DNA databases such as that maintained by the NYPD to be rogue, as opposed to New York State’s central DNA index.

They say local databases “overwhelmingly represent Black and Brown New Yorkers who the police most target, contain DNA samples collected in deceitful ways and have led to wrongful arrests. Moreover, the possibility that ICE has access to this biometric data threatens the safety and privacy of immigrant New Yorkers.”

The campaigners state that the Department of Homeland Security are using an increasing range of biometrics in their surveillance such as voiceprints and iris scans and that at least 50 NYPD officers tested Clearview AI on their personal devices. Clearview AI scrapes images from social media and has a contract with ICE.

Biases in the technology have led to the misidentification of people of color, skewing discrimination among certain communities and immigrant populations. Other campaigners are predicting federal level legislation.

“The chilling effect ICE has created remains in New York through continued raids and deportations, leaving community members in paralyzed fear,” write the pair.

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