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New York and the Surveillance State

by Anthony W. Accurso


A recent collaboration of volunteers organized by Amnesty International has tallied the number of surveillance cameras in three of New York's boroughs at just over 15,000. These cameras contribute to the quickening pace of erosion of privacy in American. They pose a constitutional threat to New Yorkers due to the police department's facial recognition software.

As of June, the project counted the cameras in Manhattan (3,590), Brooklyn (8,220), and the Bronx (3,470), while volunteers are continuing to count cameras in Queens and Staten Island to obtain a total count for the city.

For perspective, Beijing has 470,000 cameras, as China stands as a world leader in monitoring its citizens. Great Britain holds a similar distinction among nominally free and democratic countries, with London sporting about 420,000 cameras. Washington, D.C, by contrast, has about 30,000 cameras, followed by 17,000 each in Chicago and Huston.

According to a March 2020 bi-partisan letter from 17 U.S. senators sent to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, "China uses facial recognition to profile Uyghur individuals, classify them based on their ethnicity, and single them out for tracking, mistreatment, and detention."

In contrast, the New York Police Department openly acknowledges its use of facial recognition software. Still, it claims that "[v]ideo from city-owned and private cameras is not analyzed unless it is relevant to a crime that has been committed."

What counts as a "crime" can, however sometimes be determined by the degree to which police effectively "other" BIPOC populations, especially during particularly tense times. During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, police laid siege to the apartment of Derrick Ingram after using facial recognition to identify him as the man who allegedly yelled in an officer's ear with a megaphone during a demonstration.

This disproportionate response is more worrying in light of how often facial-recognition software falsely "identifies" a person as the perpetrator of a crime. When passing its ban on police use of facial recognition software in portions of Seattle, the King County Council noted, "[s]tudies have found that facial recognition software is often far more likely to misidentify Black or Asian faces, especially Black women."

How this invasion of privacy will play out may yet be determined by the willingness of New Yorkers to sacrifice privacy for the illusion of security.

"You are never anonymous," warns Amnesty International's Matt Mahmoudi. "Whether you're attending a protest, walking to a particular neighborhood, or even just grocery shopping--your face can be tracked by facial recognition technology using imagery from thousands of camera points across New York."



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