Mayor Cantrell proposes to reverse bans on facial recognition, predictive policing and other surveillance technologies

At the request of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the New Orleans City Council on Thursday introduced an ordinance to dramatically reduce local restrictions on law enforcement oversight that were put in place just 14 months ago.

The proposed order, if passed, would largely overturn the council’s blanket bans on the use of facial recognition and feature tracking software, which is similar to facial recognition but to identify race, gender, outfits, vehicles, walking gait and other attributes. A provision also appears to backtrack on the city’s ban on predictive policing and cell-site simulators — which intercept and spy on phone calls — to locate those suspected of certain serious crimes.

This provision could, for the first time, give the city explicit permission to use a range of surveillance technologies in certain circumstances, including voice recognition, x-ray vans, “through the wall radar” , social media monitoring software, “tools used to gain unauthorized access to a computer”, and more.

The current restrictions on surveillance were passed in December 2020, shortly after The Lens reported that the New Orleans Police Department was secretly using facial recognition, despite years of denials. Those restrictions, contained in an ordinance sponsored by then-Council and current District Attorney Jason Williams, represented the city’s first real attempt to regulate government surveillance at the local level.

But from the moment it was passed, NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson wanted the council to overturn it, specifically the ban on facial recognition. Earlier this month, as the city grappled with a spike in violent crime, Cantrell also spoke out in support of its rollback. And Councilman Eugene Green has agreed to sponsor an ordinance on behalf of the administration. Council members Oliver Thomas and Freddie King have also signed on as co-sponsors.

If the council approves the order, it would be a blow to advocates for the Eye on Surveillance Coalition, a local privacy and anti-surveillance group that led efforts to pass the 2020 regulations.

“The City Council has banned the use of facial recognition and three other surveillance technologies, largely because they have been shown to be racially biased and have resulted in the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of people of color across the country,” the coalition said in a statement. statement earlier this month.

A federal study of 189 different facial recognition algorithms found the software was 10 to 100 times more likely to misidentify non-white faces. Predictive policing software has also been accused of perpetuating bias by relying on historical police data, which is skewed based on decades of racist and biased police tactics. Even for tools that do not have clear inherent biases, some argue that they increase the power of a bias-ridden criminal justice system.

The coalition also raised concerns about the potential of these technologies to violate civil rights and argued that there was not enough evidence to show that these technologies actually made communities safer.

“They also continue to divert attention away from addressing the root causes of crime,” the statement said. “These tools don’t prevent crime, but we keep pumping money into them instead of affordable housing, job training, nutritious food options and better schools.

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The NOPD has already successfully opposed surveillance restrictions. Even the current regulations are far less restrictive than originally proposed by Advisor Williams and Eye on Surveillance.

The original order would have created ongoing oversight of surveillance usage, including annual reports and board approval of new surveillance technologies. But those surveillance measures were removed from the order at the request of the NOPD.

Even the simplified version of the ordinance was a historic moment for privacy legislation in New Orleans, placing the city on a short but growing list of places that actively regulate surveillance at the local level. But privacy advocates argue that still hasn’t gone far enough and Cantrell’s proposed reversal would send the city in the wrong direction.

“At a minimum, the Technology Ordinance passed in 2020 must remain in place – we cannot afford to roll back the clock,” the statement from Eye on Surveillance said.

For more than a year, Ferguson said if the surveillance bans were overturned, the NOPD would write a policy governing its use of facial recognition. According to Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell, that policy is not yet complete, and the NOPD is working with the U.S. Department of Justice and an oversight team appointed under the Department of Justice’s longstanding federal consent decree. police.

Tidwell echoed Ferguson’s past statements – that while facial recognition has the potential for racial bias, so does posting a suspicious photo and asking citizens for advice.

“As advice from CrimeStoppers, evidence obtained from surveillance technology will not be sufficient to establish probable cause for the purpose of effecting an arrest.”

In a written statement, Green’s chief of staff, Sandra Thomas, said the introduction of the order “begins the process of reviewing, gathering more information and possibly modifying.”

“Today is the first reading of the ordinance which begins the review process, gathering more information and possible changes. We look forward to the process and hope to reach a conclusion that helps productively law enforcement and makes New Orleans a safer city.

Prescription details

The four surveillance technologies in the 2020 ordinance are currently prohibited in virtually all situations. The amendment under consideration would create broad exceptions for each of them and explicitly allow the city to use new forms of surveillance not previously addressed in municipal law.

First, it changes the technology the city can own and use itself. Facial recognition would be allowed in any investigation of violent crimes, sex crimes or crimes against a minor. The technology would also be permitted “for the purpose of authenticating a City official on an electronic device, such as a cell phone or tablet.”

Another part of the proposed order states that city officials cannot be prohibited from using surveillance technology, as defined in city law, when attempting to locate subjects of felony warrants. violent, sexual crimes or crimes against a minor.

This could include otherwise prohibited technologies like cell site simulators and predictive policing software. It could also include other technologies. The definition of “surveillance technology” in the New Orleans municipal code is broad and provides other examples such as x-ray vans and “tools used to gain unauthorized access to a computer.”

The proposal would further allow the city to use facial recognition and feature tracking software to investigate any crime as long as the city does not own and use the software directly. This allows the city to make requests to outside agencies who are authorized to own and operate these technologies.

This is important for two reasons. First, for the two years the NOPD used facial recognition, it did so indirectly, by submitting requests to a state agency called the Louisiana State Analytic and Fusion Exchange, or Fusion Center. The amendment would allow the NOPD to follow up on those demands. Second, the city has shown that it has a fairly liberal interpretation of what it considers a criminal investigation.

Recently, the Lens reported that the city used its surveillance camera system to challenge a city employee’s claim and fire employees. The city argued it was justified because although the evidence was not gathered as part of an NOPD criminal investigation, the conduct in question was still a potential crime – worker’s compensation fraud. .

Finally, the proposal would allow the city to use “social media or communications software or applications for the purpose of communicating with the public, so long as such use does not include the positive use of any facial monitoring.” . Lens asked Tidwell and Green why this was included and what it was supposed to enable, but neither answered.

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