from the cracks-open-COP-TO-ENGLISH-dictionary dept
Another large American law enforcement organization has belatedly admitted it uses facial recognition tech after spending years denying it.
Last month, it was the Los Angeles Police Department, which had denied using the tech all the way up until 2019. But records obtained by the Los Angeles Times showed the department had used it 30,000 times over the past decade. When confronted, the LAPD’s assistant chief claimed the last two denials issued by him and his department were “mistakes.”
Welcome to the “I guess we’ll come clean” club, New Orleans.
The New Orleans Police Department has confirmed that it is utilizing facial recognition for its investigations, despite years of assurances that the city wasn’t employing the technology.
That runs contrary to what’s been stated publicly and what’s been told to public records requesters. This 2016 report notes the NOPD’s response to a request for records was a flat denial: “no responsive records.” This 2019 Appeal report contains yet another denial from city officials.
Mayor Cantrell has been adamant that the city does not use facial recognition, but last year New Orleans announced a deal with Briefcam, a program that can recognize certain attributes captured on camera and track them throughout the city.
It also contains a “but…” — one that was followed by a refusal to discuss the issue any further.
Norton, the mayor’s spokesperson, told The Appeal that the Real Time Crime Center does not use facial recognition technology. However, Norton said that “relevant video can be shared with public safety agencies as requested for a legitimate public safety purpose.” When asked if the city is aware of any other law enforcement agencies running the footage through facial recognition technology, Norton declined to answer.
And this report by The Tenth Amendment Center makes the NOPD’s relationship with the tech more explicit. The NOPD may not have the tech, but it certainly makes use of it.
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.
And that’s how the NOPD is going to pretend its previous denials weren’t misleading. Here’s how it responded to The Lens when contacted about its apparent years of misdirection.
In a statement to The Lens last week, a department spokesperson said that although it didn’t own facial recognition software itself, it was granted access to the technology through “state and federal partners.”
That’s the layer of plausible deniability the police department figure will save it from accusations of lying. As recently as earlier this month, the NOPD was still claiming it did not use facial recognition. Its response to an ACLU public records request stated “The Police Department does not employ facial recognition software.”
Technically correct, I guess? But only in the sense that the PD does not own the tech. Not in the sense that the PD does not use the tech. It clearly does use it. It just outsources that work to other agencies — including federal law enforcement — that do own the tech. And it uses the output from its second-hand searches to engage in investigations and identify suspects. That’s pretty much the definition of “employ.”
The PD argues the word “employ” means something else when it’s misleading the public. Here’s NOPD spokesman Kenneth Jones:
“The term employ used in the [public records request] response might’ve referred to ownership of the tool itself, which we don’t,” Jones said. “I apologize for any misunderstanding. … Again, the word ‘employ’ was used in the context of ownership.”
The PD also claims it only uses the tech it doesn’t “employ” to investigate “violent cases.” This assertion was backed by the production of zero (0) documents detailing the PD’s second-hand tech use and/or the cases it has been used for.
And there’s an additional wrinkle. The city is considering a facial recognition ban. But this admission the PD outsources its facial recognition work means it won’t be enough to simply forbid the PD from buying and utilizing its own tech. The proposal would need to be rewritten to prevent the PD from sending its photos to state or federal agencies for proxy searching.
The vote on the proposed ban has been delayed as city council members process the NOPD’s lies about its facial recognition use and decide what to do with this new information. Clearly the NOPD would like some of this tech for itself but has recognized it might be tough to sell that idea in this surveillance-weary economy. So it has done the next best thing: it has its friends hook it up. But now the city knows it can’t trust its own police department to be honest with it. And this dishonesty should factor heavily into any future agreements the city makes with the NOPD.