The NOPD Lied About Using Racially-Biased Facial Recognition Software


the side of a New Orleans police car
Photo courtesy of Fox 8 News

For years, the New Orleans Police Department has been lying about using facial recognition software, hiding their use of it from the public by never bringing it up on their own volition, and denying their use of it when directly questioned about it. 

As recently as July, Ross Bourgeois, a representative of the Real Time Crime Center, which is New Orleans’ surveillance hub, told the City Council during a meeting about a new surveillance ordinance that, “Of course the city doesn’t deploy any facial recognition technology in a law enforcement purpose… The city doesn’t have any of that technology available for our use.”

Later in that same city council meeting, when Councilwoman Helena Moreno circled back to ask the city’s Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Wisbey if NOLA has facial recognition or characteristic tracking software, he responded, “We do not currently employ any technology that does that in 2020.”

Their lies extend past one city council meeting though. There was court evidence in 2018 that the NOPD had used facial recognition to find suspects and indict them, and yet shortly after the  City of New Orleans still insisted that it, “does not use facial recognition software.” 

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Recently, in November, the ACLU of Louisiana submitted a public records request to the city for documents and communications “regarding the use of facial recognition.” The city simply responded, “The Police Department does not employ facial recognition software.” 

Well, it turns out that they do. 

Just this week they finally admitted that they have been using facial recognition software for years despite their constant assurance that they were not. 

When the ACLU heard that their suspicions about the NOPD using facial recognition software were confirmed and that the NOPD’s only justification for their lies was that they didn’t own the software, they used software provided by “state and federal partners,” so they weren’t technically lying, they were more than alarmed. 

Alanah Odoms Hebert, the executive director of ACLU Louisiana released a statement that, “These are stunning and disturbing revelations that demand an immediate investigation and response from NOPD and Mayor Cantrell’s administration. Studies have shown and recent experience proves that facial recognition technology is dangerous, racially-biased, and ineffective at combating crime. In addition, NOPD’s brazen dishonesty is a violation of the public trust that further undermines its credibility. We demand an independent investigation into why NOPD misled the public and how facial recognition was used, and the immediate halt to all use of this technology.”

 The NOPD has continued to be as vague as possible when discussing their employment of facial recognition software, stating that the frequency and duration of use is “currently unavailable,” that they will not provide a list of their partners, or any particulars on the exact hardware and software used. What we do know, is that it’s likely the FBI and the Louisiana State Police are two of their partners. 

Although they promised they are “currently working on procedures,” when questioned about what policies and procedures guide the NOPD’s use of facial recognition software, it became clear that none are in place. However, it’s likely that facial recognition technology has been used for years. The lack of policies and procedures in place and secrecy around their use of facial recognition software opens the door for them abusing it, removing all accountability measures. As Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight for the Future, said, “These types of partnerships, fusion centers, and other programs have often been used to circumvent local democratic oversight of surveillance practices, or to use surveillance tools that were intended only for “emergencies” for routine policing.”

It’s especially important that organizations using facial recognition software have transparency and accountability because the use of such software can result in citizen’s privacy being infringed on. 

In China, facial recognition software has been used to constantly surveil the public, and to enable law enforcement’s charging of people for petty crimes, like jaywalking. As Evan Greer put it, “Facial recognition really doesn’t have a place in society, it’s deeply invasive, and from our perspective, the potential harm to society and human liberties far outweigh the potential benefits.”

Facial recognition software is also racially biased which could lead to wrongful convictions. The National Institute of Standards and Technology released a study last year that tested 189 pieces of facial recognition software from 99 different developers, which found that the majority of them were racially-biased, misidentifying Black and Asian people at a factor of 10 to 100 times that of White people. Facial recognition software is especially bad about identifying black women and Native American people. 

Similar to when the NOPD created a secret predictive policing program with Palantir, the news that they’ve been secretly using facial recognition software has been met with anger and disgust. The NOPD outright lied so many times over so many years about their use of facial recognition software because it allowed them to dodge accountability in regard to it and because they know that due to its infringement on the privacy of citizens, and its racial bias, it would not be accepted by the people of New Orleans.

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