Digital volunteers to expose scale of facial recognition technology in New York City

Amnesty International has launched an innovative crowdsourcing project to help uncover the magnitude of the use of facial recognition technology in New York City.

Decode Surveillance NYC will see thousands of digital volunteers from all over the world virtually descend on New York to map CCTV and other public cameras that can be used with facial recognition software to track people across the city. The ambitious project is the latest for the ground-breaking Amnesty Decoders, which sees a global community of digital activists participate in research through crowdsourcing data-driven projects.

By harnessing the power of volunteers across the world, Decode Surveillance NYC will attempt to show that it is virtually impossible for New Yorkers to go about their daily lives, without risking being tracked by facial recognition.
Matt Mahmoudi, AI and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

The project provides a unique tool for Amnesty International’s BanTheScan campaign, to ban the use of facial recognition technology for mass surveillance globally, as it threatens human rights. The use of facial recognition technology in New York disproportionately impacts people of colour and threatens the right to peaceful protest. Achieving a ban on the use of this discriminatory technology by the NYPD will send a powerful message to law enforcement across the world to do the same.

“By harnessing the power of Amnesty’s volunteers across the world, Decode Surveillance NYC will attempt to show that it is virtually impossible for New Yorkers to go about their daily lives, without risking being tracked by facial recognition, ” said Matt Mahmoudi, AI and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

“Police use of facial recognition in New York continues to exacerbate systemic racism. This is emblematic of how law enforcement globally is weaponizing the technology against the most marginalized groups. We expect a ban on the use of facial recognition in New York would ripple across other cities around the world.”

From the Bronx to Brooklyn, digital volunteers will be transported to different intersections across the city’s five boroughs to tag and classify cameras. Anyone with a mobile phone or computer can take part. The initial research results are expected ahead of a key vote in the New York Senate in June, which could lead to a state-wide ban on police biometric surveillance, including facial recognition.

More than 50,000 volunteers from 150 countries have taken part in Decoders projects since it launched in 2016. The community of volunteers that power Decoders have sifted through huge volumes of data, processing more than 1.5 million tasks. They helped Amnesty International researchers document how the US-led military coalition’s bombings destroyed almost 80% of the Syrian city of Raqqa, detect destroyed villages in remote Darfur; hold oil companies to account for thousands of oil spills in Nigeria; and analyse tweets to document the scale of online abuse and threats against women

“The Decoders community has helped Amnesty research and expose human rights violations on a scale that would not have been possible otherwise. This unique network provides a real advantage as we seek to document the harms caused by facial recognition technology,” said Sam Dubberley, head of Amnesty International’s Evidence Lab.

The Decode Surveillance NYC platform has a built-in verification mechanism – meaning that each image will be shown to a number of different volunteers and will be treated as verified when they agree on what they have seen. Amnesty International researchers will also do random checks on the data to ensure its quality and veracity.

The digital volunteers will bolster the efforts of activists in New York where Amnesty is partnering with AI for the People, the Surveillance Technologies Oversight Project, the Immigrant Defence Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York City Public Advocate's office, The Privacy NY Coalition, WITNESS and State Senator Brad Hoylman and Rada Studios to campaign for the legislation to ban the use of facial recognition technology for mass surveillance by law enforcement in the city.

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