You can’t believe cops when they tell you they don’t use facial recognition.

Even if your local police department claims it doesn’t own or use the technology, it may well be accessing facial recognition via information sharing with other law enforcement agencies.

Government officials want to keep facial recognition technology secret and they’re not above misleading the public.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan sent out a tweet that implied the city’s police department was not using facial recognition technology, but he worded it a way that obscured the truth. In fact, the city spent more than $1 million on facial recognition technology back in 2017 and the Detriot Police Department uses it.

But Duggan isn’t alone in his misdirection.

The City of New Orleans adamantly insists it “does not use facial recognition software.” It even has a line in the privacy policy of its Real-Time Crime Center surveillance hub claiming, “Facial recognition is not utilized by the System.”

And yet the New Orleans Police Department identified a suspect in a 2018 mugging based on facial recognition. How did this happen if the NOPD doesn’t use facial recognition?

As an article published by OneZero put it, “the NOPD has back-channel access to the state’s facial recognition program.” According to the report, the police department relied on technology operated by the Louisiana State Police after local investigators sent a wanted poster with a photo of the suspect to the state fusion center.

According to court records, a state police technician with the Louisiana State Fusion Center, which runs a facial recognition program, picked up the image from the poster and — without NOPD knowledge — ran it through the software. The Fusion Center technician in charge of the case later sent along one of the matches generated by the program to her supervisor who, according to emails obtained by OneZero, passed it on to a NOPD lieutenant overseeing the case, writing that the technician “was able to locate a possible match” using the facial recognition program. According to the emails, the NOPD lieutenant then forwarded the match to the NOPD detective, writing: “Looks like they identified your guy.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell reiterated that “by policy, facial recognition software is not used in the city’s Real-Time Crime Center.” But she said other law enforcement agencies can request archive footage that has been uploaded to NOPD’s digital evidence platform. When another agency makes a request, “the respective agency is obligated to comply with their agency’s policies and procedures.”

Lousiana ACLU attorney Bruce Hamilton called New Orleans government officials “a little disingenuous.”

“Even if NOPD aren’t using [facial recognition technology], but they’re sending out the images — where is there control against government abuse and accountability?”

The statement from the mayor’s office reveals a disturbing reality. Photographs and camera footage vacuumed up by surveillance cameras dispersed throughout New Orleans and fed into the Real-Time Crime Center surveillance hub is stored and made available to law enforcement agencies across the country through fusion centers and other information-sharing channels.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

In other words, facial surveillance in cities like New Orleans has national implications. And similar scenarios are playing out in cities across the country.

For instance, Stop LA Spying noted in a tweet that In 2017, “LAPD Commish Matt Johnson made a big deal about adding a point to LAPD’s policy on drones, that drones ‘will not be deployed or used with any facial recognition software or analysis.’ But drones are deployed based on info culled by Palantir, that uses facial recognition.”

Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are partnering to create a massive, nationwide facial recognition system. The FBI rolled out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, with the goal of building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends.

The Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law released “The Perpetual Lineup,” a massive report on law enforcement use of facial recognition technology in the U.S. You can read the complete report at perpetuallineup.org. The organization conducted a year-long investigation and collected more than 15,000 pages of documents through more than 100 public records requests. The report paints a disturbing picture of intense cooperation between the federal government, and state and local law enforcement to develop a massive facial recognition database.

“Face recognition is a powerful technology that requires strict oversight. But those controls, by and large, don’t exist today,” report co-author Clare Garvie said. “With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy, and no systems checking for bias. It’s a wild west.”

George Orwell’s Big Brother would have drooled over the all-encompassing surveillance system quietly under construction in the United States. Facial recognition technology linked to federal, state and local databases can track your every move just by pointing a camera at your face. It effectively turns each of us into a suspect standing in a perpetual lineup.

As Michael Boldin said in a recent video, the growing public debate about the use of facial recognition surveillance in Detroit, New York, and California gives some insight on what to expect everywhere this technology is launched.

With their rapid proliferation, the potential for abuse and the threat to basic privacy rights posed by facial recognition surveillance, state and local governments need to make oversight and placing limits on law enforcement use of facial recognition a top priority. At the least, law enforcement agencies should be required to get local government approval in a public meeting before obtaining facial recognition technology. The TAC’s Local Ordinance to Limit Surveillance Technology covers this.

The good news is that there is growing resistance against facial recognition in cities and states.

San Francisco and Somerville, Mass. have both banned facial recognition technology. The New York Assembly is considering a bill to ban facial recognition in schools. And a bill introduced in the Michigan legislature would place a total ban on police use of facial recognition.


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