The NYPD spent nearly $159 million on secret contracts for surveillance technology used to monitor New York citizens. Equipment includes facial recognition software, vans equipped with x-ray tech, and “stingray” cellphone monitors.
The NYPD use a hushed “Special Expenses Fund” was used for the acquisition of the technology. The fund required no approval by municipal officials or the city council. Essentially, the activity took place with zero oversight, from as far back as 2007.
The documents detailing these operations were made public by two civil rights groups—the Legal Aid Society, and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). They also released a joint statement condemning the operations.
It’s difficult to get a coherent understanding of the relations between the NYPD and the vendors. Many of the documents are redacted. It’s also hard to get an idea of how the technology works.
“The secrecy surrounding these records is part of the continued attempts to protect the NYPD from scrutiny.” said Albert Fox Cahn, STOP’s executive director.
Bias in Design and Application
STOP, the Legal Aid Society, and other civil rights groups often stress that a lot of surveillance technology is untested, and may run on algorithmic bias. Depending on the data set an algorithm is trained on, bias will naturally arise.
If a facial recognition AI, for example, is trained with photos of people from a single ethnic group, it may be biased against people from other ethnic groups. Sometimes it may even fail to register them at all. On the other hand, it may place too much emphasis on the group it’s trained on.
The human element is also scrutinized.
In what communities has this technology been deployed primarily and to what ends? This isn’t the first time that US agencies have been found to be using tech of this kind without oversight. Earlier this year inquiries began into the use of unregulated tech by several government agencies.
They’re utilized by prospective employers and very curious individuals. So surveillance is common enough in everyday life.
However, the information available in these databases is mostly what individuals themselves shared, i.e. public social media and public records.
The difference with the type of surveillance being used by the NYPD and other agencies is that no one can be sure of what it’s collecting, and when.
There’s no way to anticipate a “stingray” connecting to your phone or to know if your facial print is on a database somewhere. The structures in place to monitor and control old surveillance tech don’t exist for this new tech.
Civil rights organizations like STOP and the Legal Aid Society have vowed to continue pushing for transparency and to fight the indiscriminate use of indecipherable surveillance technology on citizens.