Rights groups call for ban of ‘invasive’ face recognition tech

New York City police department uses more than 15,000 cameras to surveil people with problematic technology, Amnesty International claims.

Facial recognition technology is used to screen people before they visit the Statue of Liberty in New York on May 25, 2002. The NYPD is facing calls to end its use of the technology, which rights groups say threatens civil liberties [File: Chip East/Reuters]

The New York Police Department is capable of processing images from 15,280 surveillance cameras through “invasive and discriminatory facial recognition software“, according to an Amnesty International investigation published Thursday.

The investigation identified the surveillance cameras in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, boroughs of the city, and was conducted by “[t]housands of volunteers from around the world”, according to an Amnesty press release.

Facial recognition technology (FRT) often works by scraping a vast amount of images from the internet – often without one’s knowledge – to feed an algorithm that attempts to match photos to a person’s identity.

Amnesty International launched a “Ban the Scan” campaign in January that focused on New York’s use of the technology and has promised to expand its investigations to New York’s remaining boroughs, Queens and Staten Island. Then it will broaden to the rest of the globe.

There are numerous controversies surrounding FRT. It has been criticised for its failures to correctly identify women and people of colour.

A software engineer works on a facial recognition program that identifies people when they wear a face mask at the development lab of the Chinese electronics manufacturer Hanwang (Hanvon) Technology in Beijing China, on March 6, 2020 [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

“The technology is widely recognized as amplifying racially discriminatory policing and can threaten the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and privacy,” Amnesty said in the release.

The NYPD has used FRT “in 22,000 cases since 2017 — half of which were in 2019 alone”. “When camera imagery is run through FRT, the NYPD is able to track every New Yorker’s face as they move through the city,” it said.

The press release drew attention to an area in Brooklyn with a population comprising 54.4 percent Black people, 30 percent Hispanic and 8.4 percent white people, which “was found to be the most surveilled neighbourhood in all three boroughs, with an alarming 577 cameras found at intersections”.

Critics point to the NYPD using FRT to find Black Lives Matter activist Derrick Ingram last year, when police surrounded his home and engaged in a six-hour standoff after he was accused of using a megaphone to scream into an officer’s ear during a June protest.

Ingram streamed the standoff, which occurred in August, two months after the alleged activity took place. The charges against him were eventually dropped, he told the New York Magazine.

Kate Ruane, the senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government has never “possessed a surveillance tool as dangerous as face recognition technology. This technology is a threat to core constitutional rights, giving governments, companies, and individuals the power to spy on us wherever we go.”

Amazon has come under criticism for its use of FRT, as have India, China and other countries.

Ruane continued: “[W]e have already seen with the wrongful arrests of Robert Williams and at least two other Black men who were falsely identified due to faulty face recognition technology.”

Williams, a 43-year-old man from Detroit, was wrongly identified and arrested related to a theft investigation in October 2018.

Williams filed a civil lawsuit against the Detroit police, cited by the Detroit Free Press, that claims he was arrested in front of his family on January 9, 2020, and “held for 30 hours before he was released on a personal bond”.

Expanded use

“But even if face recognition was perfectly accurate, it would still be a nightmare for civil liberties,” Ruane continued.

The ACLU joined Amnesty and 39 other organisations in signing a June 3 letter that claims “face recognition expands the scope and power of law enforcement” to a point that “defendants’ rights to due process protections have been essentially non-existent when it comes to the technology.”

The coalition, which also includes the Open Technology Institute, Upturn, the Leadership Conference and others, are pushing for legislation to ban FRT.

The push comes as US law enforcement expands the use of FRT after the deadly January 6 riot that saw supporters of former President Donald Trump attempt to stop a joint session of Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s victory.

The large-scale investigation into the riot has seen more than 440 charged. But at least one suspect has claimed the FBI’s use of FRT resulted in misidentification.

“Our lawmakers must take immediate action to halt its use”, Ruane concluded.

Source: Al Jazeera