NEW YORK (FOX 5 NY) - Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology senior associate Clare Garvie waited more than two years for litigation against the NYPD to force the department to turn over 3,700 pages detailing how the department edits photos before entering them into its facial-recognition software.
"They told us first that all the records were exempt and then that they had no records," she said.
The NYPD told FOX 5 NY that its use of facial recognition created leads allowing it to identify murderers, rapists, burglars, and missing individuals.
But Garvie's "Garbage in, Garbage Out" report found that to create one those leads the department input a picture of actor Woody Harrelson instead of a grainy image of a subject that police deemed—and most might agree accurately so—looked like the Hollywood star.
"You can't combine two peoples' biometrics and expect to receive reliable results about one of those people," Garvie said.
Whether ethical and necessary to keep us safe or not, New York City Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said the NYPD owes the citizens it protects a detailed explanation of how it uses and plans to use facial recognition in the present and future.
"The way the NYPD is handling facial recognition is really playing fast and loose with legitimate concerns of New Yorkers," Lieberman said. "We have a need for them to be transparent in how they use technologies, what technologies they're using."
While the NYPD told FOX 5 it used facial recognition only to produce leads, Garvie cited an example of the department relying nearly exclusively on facial recognition to make an arrest.
"Bypassing a lineup procedure and instead just texting a witness the results of a face recognition match and asking: Is this the guy?" Garvie said.
An NYPD spokesperson said in a statement that the department's use of facial recognition tech has been "deliberate and responsible."
"No one has ever been arrested on the basis of a facial recognition match alone. As with any lead, further investigation is always needed to develop probable cause to arrest," Sgt. Jessica McRorie said. "The NYPD constantly reassesses our existing procedures and in line with that are in the process of reviewing our existent facial recognition protocols."
The NYPD declined to answer whether using an image of a look-alike—celebrity or otherwise—represented common-practice.
"There are no rules around what can be submitted to these face-recognition systems and how the results can be used," Garvie said.
NYPD'S FULL STATEMENT:
"Facial recognition is merely a lead; it is not a positive identification and it is not probable cause to arrest. No one has ever been arrested on the basis of a facial recognition match alone. As with any lead, further investigation is always needed to develop probable cause to arrest.
"The NYPD has been deliberate and responsible in its use of facial recognition technology. We compare images from crime scenes to arrest photos in law enforcement records. We do not engage in mass or random collection of facial records from NYPD camera systems, the internet, or social media. In each case, whether it is to identify a lost or missing person or the perpetrator of a violent crime, facial recognition analysis starts with a specific image that is compared to other specific images to develop a possible lead. That lead will need to be investigated by detectives to develop evidence that will verify or discount it.
"The NYPD's use of facial recognition has generated leads that have ultimately led to the recent arrest of one man for throwing urine at MTA conductors, and another for pushing a subway passenger onto the tracks. The leads generated have also led to arrests for homicides, rapes and robberies. The NYPD has also used facial recognition for non-criminal investigations, for example a woman hospitalized with Alzheimer's was identified through an old arrest photo for driving without a license.
"The NYPD constantly reassesses our existing procedures and in line with that are in the process of reviewing our existent facial recognition protocols."
—Sgt. Jessica McRorie