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Here’s the Oppressive Surveillance You’ll Face If You Protest in NYC

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Photo: Ramin Talaie (Getty Images)

For years now, New York City has tried to distance itself from its embattled and racist Stop and Frisk policing tactics that were responsible for creating over 100,000 interactions with police annually during the early 2000s. Though these physical stops have mostly tapered down, activists say it’s been replaced by a digital equivalent with equally as troubling racial biases: facial recognition.

A new report and accompanying interactive map released this week by Amnesty International buttressed that point, with research finding greater levels of facial recognition exposure in nonwhite neighborhoods. In NYC’s Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn boroughs, for example, higher proportions of nonwhite residents mapped onto higher concentrations of facial recognition compatible CCTV cameras.

“We now know that the communities most targeted with stop-and-frisk are also at greater risk of discriminatory policing through invasive surveillance,’ Amnesty International Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights Researcher Matt Mahmoudi said in a statement. “The shocking reach of facial recognition technology in the city leaves entire neighborhoods exposed to mass surveillance.”

Amnesty International conducted the study using crowdsourced data on public camera locations pulled from thousands of volunteers working with its Decode Surveillance NYC project. In total, the volunteers have mapped out more than 25,500 CCTV cameras spread out across the city’s five boroughs.

These findings on their own aren’t particularly revelatory. Local security advocates and experts like Matt Mitchell of the anti-surveillance nonprofit CryptoHarlem have, for years, spoken out against pervasive facial recognition plaguing New York’s Harlem neighborhood. “You can’t buy a bag of chips in Harlem without being surveilled,” Mitchell told Motherboard back in 2018.

Nonetheless, Amnesty’s searchable map provides an explicit, in-your-face illustration of New York’s surveillance apparatus residents or visitors can easily apply to their daily lives. Whether it’s discovering how many public cameras are between you and your favorite Mexican restaurant (in this writer’s case, around six) or comparing facial recognition exposure between neighborhoods, the tools provide a useful illustration of our ubiquitous surveillance state.

Public facial recognition on its own already comes attached with a laundry list of potentially troubling civil liberty and privacy concerns made all the more chilling when applied to a political protest. Using the new tools, Amnesty researchers determined demonstrators at the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest would have spent the vast majority of their time exposed to some form of public facial recognition.

“When we looked at routes that people would have walked to get to and from protests from nearby subway stations, we found nearly total surveillance coverage by publicly-owned CCTV cameras, mostly NYPD Argus cameras,” Mahmoudi said.

In the BLM case, the theoretical concerns around facial recognition took on an all-too-real element. In the months following the protest, reports emerged detailing how the NYPD had used facial recognition to track a prominent protest organizer. Police eventually used that data to deploy more than 50 officers and dogs to surround his Hell’s Kitchen apartment.

With those examples in mind, we decided to step into a time machine and use Amnesty’s new tool to determine the levels of surveillance some of NYC’s most historic marches would have faced if they occurred in 2022.

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