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Report: NYPD Assisted in Creating Facial Recognition Technology

by Kevin Bliss

IBM and the New York Police Department (“NYPD”) collaborated on the development of the computer giant’s facial recognition technology, The Intercept has revealed. The program began in 2008 when IBM used the threat of possible terrorist activity post-9/11 to sell the program to the NYPD, and for eight years, the software was developed and tested using images of unsuspecting New Yorkers.

Documents of the initial agreement found by The Intercept raised fears that the technology was developed exploiting certain racial biases. Searches could be performed using such criteria as skin tone or ethnicity. Supposedly, the NYPD explicitly declined to use these search features in an actual case. However, the researcher who developed them stated that IBM would not waste the time on creating a feature if there wasn’t already a market for it. He believed the NYPD approached IBM requesting this feature during the pilot program.

A spokesperson for the NYPD emphatically denied any type of impropriety in the use of the technology. He stated, “Where such tools came with a test version of the product, the testers were instructed only to test other features (clothing, eyeglasses, etc.), but not to test or use the skin tone feature. That is not because there would have been anything illegal or even improper about testing or using these tools ... It was specifically to avoid even the suggestion or appearance of any kind of technological racial profiling.”

Additionally, according to an article on, even if the NYPD did act in self-interest due to its proven unconstitutional surveillance of Muslims in the past, nonetheless this technology would still be sold to other less-discriminating law enforcement agencies. Cameras would be replacing officers on the streets and all of the policing would be done by third-party software designed to encourage categorizing people by their race.

Another concern stated in the article was that non-disclosure agreements mandate that certain information must be kept from anyone other than those excluded under the agreement. This could include judges, defendants, and any type of oversight organization, violating a number of constitutional rights. They suggested that a little proactive transparency would greatly benefit the NYPD in this situation. 


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