Even as debates continue about pervasive government monitoring of our lives, surveillance technology is becoming more sophisticated and pervasive. New York City residents in just three boroughs live and work under the watchful gaze of over 15,000 cameras. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has the ability to run the images they capture through software that matches faces to identities—though not always reliably. The result is not just a loss of privacy for those under constant scrutiny, but also the potential for confrontations with law enforcement.
"The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has the ability to track people in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx by running images from 15,280 surveillance cameras into invasive and discriminatory facial recognition software," according to Amnesty International. "Thousands of volunteers from around the world participated in the investigation, tagging 15,280 surveillance cameras at intersections across Manhattan (3,590), Brooklyn (8,220) and the Bronx (3,470)."
The volunteers continue to count cameras in Queens and Staten Island to get a fuller picture of the extent of surveillance in the city. The NYPD is open about using facial recognition but claims that "[v]ideo from city-owned and private cameras is not analyzed unless it is relevant to a crime that has been committed."
Last summer, police laid siege to the apartment of Black Lives Matter activist Derrick Ingram after he allegedly yelled in an officer's ear through a megaphone during a demonstration. Police identified him through facial recognition technology that compared his image at the protest against photos on his Instagram account.
The use of images scraped from social media to populate databases for identification purposes is a hallmark of Clearview AI, a major provider of the technology. The tactic has enabled the company to accumulate billions of images while, as of early 2020, the FBI's own database contained 640 million. Clearview AI faces a lawsuit in California over its scraping practices and withdrew from Canada after being slapped with an investigation by that country's privacy commissioner.
While the sheer number of cameras monitoring New York City residents is high, the NYPD is hardly the only law-enforcement agency to attempt to implement a surveillance state. In April, Buzzfeed News acquired a listing of 1,803 publicly funded agencies that have used or are using Clearview's facial recognition tools. The listing likely understated the number of agencies making use of the technology, since many departments gain access to pooled resources through federally funded Regional Information Sharing Systems Centers.
Those numbers also don't include agencies making use of competing surveillance tools or systems they themselves have developed. Motorola-owned Vigilant is another important player in the industry, though it's better-known for license-plate recognition technology that can capture people's whereabouts and movements by tying into motor vehicle records. In fact, many developers have been hard at work on facial recognition technology in recent years, with the Chinese government's appetite for total control an important spur to innovation and the adoption of such tools.
"China uses facial recognition to profile Uyghur individuals, classify them on the basis of their ethnicity, and single them out for tracking, mistreatment, and detention," 17 senators from both sides of the aisle charged in a letter to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March 2020. "And these technologies are deployed in service of a dystopian vision for technology governance, that harnesses the economic benefits of the internet in the absence of political freedom and sees technology companies as instruments of state power."
Perhaps oddly, the pandemic encouraged advances in surveillance technology as the widespread adoption of public mask-wearing induced developers to implement increasingly sophisticated techniques. Modern algorithms yield fairly accurate results by focusing on the shape and spacing of people's eyes.
"Some newer algorithms from developers performed significantly better than their predecessors. In some cases, error rates decreased by as much as a factor of 10 between their pre- and post-COVID algorithms," according to Mei Ngan, one of the authors of a December 2020 U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology study. "In the best cases, software algorithms are making errors between 2.4 and 5% of the time on masked faces, comparable to where the technology was in 2017 on nonmasked photos."
Concealing the eyes is still an effective means of defeating facial recognition tools.
If China is the world leader in surveillance, the United Kingdom may hold that distinction among nominally free and democratic countries. The pervasiveness of that country's monitoring of its population puts New York City's efforts in perspective—though it may also offer a glimpse of the future.
"The tabulation shows that Beijing has 470,000 cameras, compared to 420,000 in London, 30,000 in Washington, DC, and 17,000 each in Chicago and Houston," a Brookings Institution study noted in 2017.
Despite the examples of New York City and the 1,803 departments in the Buzzfeed News listing, not all jurisdictions are gung-ho about widespread surveillance. Citing civil liberties concerns, San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition by police in 2019. Los Angeles restricted the use of commercial facial recognition tools by police last November. And King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, imposed a full ban on the use of the technology by government agencies just last week.
"The legislation, prime sponsored by Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, aims to protect our residents' civil liberties and freedom from government surveillance and demographic biases by prohibiting the use of such software, including by the King County Sheriff, except to comply with the National Child Search Assistance Act," King County announced June 1. "Studies have found that facial recognition software is often far more likely to misidentify Black or Asian faces, especially Black women."
For now, though, New York City remains among the communities putting its residents under ever-increasing surveillance.
"You are never anonymous," warns Amnesty's Matt Mahmoudi. "Whether you're attending a protest, walking to a particular neighbourhood, or even just grocery shopping – your face can be tracked by facial recognition technology using imagery from thousands of camera points across New York."
So long as those surveillance tools remain in place, people have only government assurances that the technology isn't being used to invade their privacy.