The NYPD’s secretive Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center uses software from IBM in its video analytics system as per the Intercept’s report. This technology developed by IBM will allow cops to automatically scan surveillance footage for machine-generated labels that identify clothing and other identifying classifiers.
Recent confidential corporate documents from IBM provide real-time insight into how this system was developed and used. Since at least 2012 and until at least 2016, IBM’s video classification tool has allowed NYPD officers and contractors to use skin color as a classifier for identifying suspects; the training data for this feature came from the NYPD’s own footage. The Intercept and the Investigative Fund have learned that IBM began developing this object identification technology using secret access to NYPD camera footage.
With access to images of thousands of unknowing New Yorkers offered up by NYPD officials, IBM was creating new search features that allow other police departments to search camera footage for images of people by hair color, facial hair, and skin tone. More recent versions of IBM’s tools have “ethnicity” search boxes that allow users to search on terms like “white,” “black” and “Asian.”
In an email to The Intercept, the NYPD confirmed that select counterterrorism officials had access to a pre-released version of IBM’s program, which included skin tone search capabilities, as early as the summer of 2012.
NYPD spokesperson Peter Donald says, “The search characteristics were only used for evaluation purposes and that officers were instructed not to include the skin tone search feature in their assessment. The department eventually decided not to integrate the analytics program into its larger surveillance architecture, and phased out the IBM program in 2016.”
The NYPD has been notorious for decades’ worth of mass-scale racial profiling scandals, ranging from stop-and-frisk to public executions of black people. Though they mention that IBM personnel had access to certain cameras for the sole purpose of configuring NYPD’s system. And the department had safeguards in place to protect the data, including non-disclosure agreements for each individual accessing the system, for the companies and the vendors it worked for.
Civil liberties advocates contend that New Yorkers should have been made aware of the potential use of their physical data for a private company’s development of surveillance technology. They want NYPD to be transparent about surveillance acquisitions and adhere to the New York City surveillance bill.
Also published on Medium.