NYPD Faces Criticism After Using Secret Facial Recognition Program

The widespread use of facial recognition by police, without any indication of policies about the software's use, has some experts fearing potential abuses.

A redacted 500 page document obtained through a lawsuit shows the extent to which New York's Police Department has been utilizing secret facial recognition software. Experts now say it is likely that the NYPD is using facial recognition in every arrest.

Information about the NYPD's “Forensic Imaging System” was sought by Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology through Freedom of Information Law request, according to the New York Daily News.

“NYPD’s face-recognition system appears to include data for every NYPD arrestee, meaning that each arrestee is subjected to face-recognition searches,” said papers filed by Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

Police forces around the United States have employed similar programs. Michigan State Police have made their contracts with facial recognition programs available to the public. Those contracts appear to resemble the ones currently being used by the NYPD; however, it took around nine months of court battles for the NYPD to release information on their utilization of the technology.

Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology says that the NYPD has purposefully delayed the release of the documents. On February 28, a hearing in the Manhattan Supreme Court was dismissed when an NYPD expert could not attend due to medical reasons.

A judge's decision pertaining to the extent of the usage of the technology may force the NYPD to release further information on the programs. The NYPD argues that releasing more information on the subject poses a security risk and aids criminals who may take advantage of the data.

The information held in the Forensic imaging system is “created when an image, like a mug shot, is loaded into the database." The system has the ability to store 20 million records and is integrated with fingerprint records.

The information obtained through the request does not include police policy's on the usage of the system, including when a photo obtained by police can be compared to their mugshot records.

Clare Garvie, an associate with Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, has been critical of the NYPD's handling of the information request.

“The NYPD has failed to ensure the public this will only be used for reasonable law enforcement purposes,” Garvie said.

Michael Price, counsel with Liberty & National Security Program Brennan Center for Justice, echoed fears about the programs.

"Right now we haven't really had that discussion and the technology is being used without any rules or protections in place, both in the government sector and in the private sector" said Michael Price, counsel with Liberty & National Security Program Brennan Center for Justice, to NBC. "That can lead to serious abuse." 

Previously, the NYPD has produced one document following a 2016 Freedom of Information Act request, according to Reuters.

The Center for Privacy & Technology released a report that concluded that half of America's adults have images stored in at least one searchable database used by police. Last year, The U.S. Government Accountability Office said that an estimated 400 million facial pictures were stored by police forces across the country.

The NYPD has not offered a comment on the matter.

[Photo: Getty Images]

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