US police secretly trial IBM software that includes skin tone search functions

Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the New York City Police Department installed thousands of CCTV cameras and by 2008 in partnership with Microsoft had built the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center to consolidate its video surveillance operations into a single command centre that also incorporated other sensors such as licence plate readers and radiation detectors. In 2010 as part of its Domain Awareness System, the NYPD began integrating cutting-edge video analytics software into select cameras around the city that automatically labelled the images with tags indicating specific characteristics such as clothing colour. The system also was used to generate alerts for anomalies such as unattended packages, cars traversing one-way streets the wrong way, and people accessing restricted areas - capabilities that were built by IBM first in collaboration with the Chicago Police Department, and then as a subcontractor to Microsoft based on secret access to NYPD's camera footage. Between 2012 and 2016, the pre-release version of IBM's software included the ability to search images by skin tone. NYPD phased out IBM's software in 2016, although the program retained and expanded the body search capabilities. NYPD claimed that these capabilities were accessed only by a handful of counterterrorism personnel for evaluation purposes and then were explicitly declined. However, the software has been used by campus police at California State University, Northridge, which found it helpful in investigations. Besides privacy concerns, critics objected to the secrecy surrounding the system.

Writer: George Joseph and Kenneth Lipp
Publication: The Intercept