Police and intelligence agencies’ utilization of facial recognition, video analytics, stingrays, automated license plate readers, domain awareness systems, drones, x-ray vans, body cameras, predictive policing tools, and surveillance towers demonstrates that augmentation of technology is inevitable. The New York Police Departments’ perspective of exploiting these technologies as a method to prevent terrorism is ethically viable. Conversely, the concern is that this elaborate, yet integrated system of technologies relies on appropriating biometrics that threatens civil liberties because they accumulate data with little to no regulation. Consequently, surveillance in the United States has been moving toward a dystopian police state.

Former NYPD Commissioner James O’Neil glorified facial recognition technology and declared it “[reduces] the probability of mistaken identity convictions” and is not grounds for probable cause, but by 2019, the NYPD made 2,878 arrests based on this technology. Surveillance technology utilizes algorithms that perpetuate racial bias. For example, International Business Machines (IBM) discreetly worked with the NYPD to develop a video analytics software as part of their Domain Awareness System. Initially, the algorithm was developed to pinpoint features such as gender, “head color”, facial hair, and skin tone. NYPD officials proclaimed they denied the use of skin tone identification, but former IBM researcher Rick Kjeldsen stated they would not have developed and tested an algorithm as such had they not been prompted to do so. What raises significant concern is the NYPD secretly contributing to the development of this technology without transparency because the more an algorithm is tested the more precise it becomes. Unfortunately, advanced biometric technology infringes upon privacy by collecting and storing massive amounts of data, which means there is room for abuse, and due to broad policies, police and other contributors must be held accountable for the outcome of their actions.

Ángel Díaz, Counsel in the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, argues that ignoring the reality of NYPD surveillance secrecy is no “longer unconscionable–but there is a way to fix it.” Accountability and transparency are essential aspects of fixing the issue. Police are not required to inform the public of surveillance uses because developers proclaim doing so is equivalent to providing trade secrets. We are living in an era where money and power are placed above integrity and abiding by our inalienable rights. Everyone involved in the development of harmful surveillance technologies must be responsible for their role in the damage that has been done and the harm that will be done. Oversight alone is not enough, for many reasons, but a significant component of surveillance tech is funding. One way to purchase tech is through civil asset forfeiture, which permits police the power to seize property, including money, from individuals convicted of a crime or suspected of committing a crime. Another method is investments from the wealthy, which means affluent individuals and corporations give millions and billions of dollars to use this technology at large. For example, billionaire Chris Larson donated millions to the Bay Area to install an advanced system of cameras as an approach to deter crime. Recently, this granted the police department the ability to spy on Black Lives Matter protestors, which neglects their 4th Amendment rights.

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder, and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity testified to a commission the Trump administration established whose intentions were to convince the community to trust law enforcement. The commission proposed permitting police access to encrypted cellphones. He argues that we should all be concerned about this for two reasons. One, we cannot build an equitable policing system when there is no transparency and lack of regulation, and two, this would clear the room for law enforcement to use force to acquire our data. Privacy concerns have depleted police trust. In my opinion, a significant factor for police defunding would be to cutback and regulate spending on technology.

Yes, part of the battle in preventing a dystopian police state is ensuring regulation for the entirety of surveillance technology, but we must also regulate funding for the future of racial justice and to safeguard our privacy as we are not aware of the full potential of algorithms, the use of our data, what police and intelligence agencies have done and will do until they are restricted.

Compliance Specialist at the Center for Court Innovation & MPA-PPA Candidate at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice