New Orleans Police Claim Not To Use Facial Recognition Tech. Emails Reveal That’s Not Totally True.

The city outsources facial recognition work to other Louisiana law enforcement departments

Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

TThe City of New Orleans has been adamant that it “does not use facial recognition software.” Though there is no city ordinance outright banning the technology, city officials often repeat that claim, and have even included a line in the privacy policy of its Real-Time Crime Center surveillance hub stating “Facial recognition is not utilized by the System.”

But that is an incomplete picture of how facial recognition technology is being used in New Orleans. Now, court evidence reveals that Louisiana state police officers can and have utilized a searchable facial recognition database to assist New Orleans police in their investigations. In at least one NOPD investigation, facial recognition was used to identify and indict a suspect.

In December 2018, a New Orleans police detective investigating a mugging in the city’s French Quarter distributed a wanted poster to the department’s law enforcement partners around the state — standard practice for New Orleans police investigators.

In at least one NOPD investigation, facial recognition was used to identify and indict a suspect.

According to court records, a state police technician with the Louisiana State Fusion Center, which runs a facial recognition program, picked up the image from the poster and — without NOPD knowledge — ran it through the software. The Fusion Center technician in charge of the case later sent along one of the matches generated by the program to her supervisor who, according to emails obtained by OneZero, passed it on to a NOPD lieutenant overseeing the case, writing that the technician “was able to locate a possible match” using the facial recognition program. According to the emails, the NOPD lieutenant then forwarded the match to the NOPD detective, writing: “Looks like they identified your guy.”

Two months after the original wanted poster was issued, the NOPD arrested the person whose image came up as a match in the state’s facial recognition system.

Emails between the NOPD and the Louisiana State Fusion Center outline how facial recognition was used to identify a New Orleans robbery suspect.

In a statement, LaTonya Nelson, a spokesperson for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that, “By policy, facial recognition software is not used in the city’s Real-Time Crime Center.” However, she added that other law enforcement agencies can request archive footage that has been uploaded to NOPD’s digital evidence platform. When another agency makes a request, Nelson said, “the respective agency is obligated to comply with their agency’s policies and procedures.”

The process, as described by Nelson, is murky at best. Though New Orleans city officials insist that local law enforcement does not use facial recognition, the French Quarter investigation suggests that the NOPD has back-channel access to the state’s facial recognition program.

That has privacy advocates alarmed. Bruce Hamilton, an attorney with the Louisiana chapter of the ACLU, says that New Orleans officials have been “a little disingenuous” in making public statements about the city’s facial recognition position.

“Even if NOPD aren’t using [facial recognition technology], but they’re sending out the images — where is there control against government abuse and accountability?” he asked.

Evan Greer is the deputy director of digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future, which has called for a full federal ban on all law enforcement and government use of facial recognition surveillance. Greer said that there is “a long history” of law enforcement agencies sharing data with each other, or performing surveillance operations on each other’s behalf.

“These types of partnerships, fusion centers, and other programs have often been used to circumvent local democratic oversight of surveillance practices, or to use surveillance tools that were intended only for “emergencies” for routine policing,” Greer said.

“These types of partnerships, fusion centers, and other programs have often been used to circumvent local democratic oversight of surveillance practices.”

Police departments are often a part of local, state, regional, and federal networks that share biometric data. Historically, that meant sharing fingerprint images. But some of these networks are now sharing images used for facial recognition programs. In California, for example, local police departments share biometric images with other local departments, the state department of justice, other states in the region, police departments across the country, and the FBI.

The Louisiana Fusion center — known as the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange, or LA-SAFE for short, was established in 2008. According to LA-SAFE’s website, a fusion center is defined as a “collaborative effort of two or more agencies that provide resources, expertise, and information to the center with the goal of maximizing their ability to detect, prevent, investigate, and respond to criminal and terrorist activity.”

On its website, LA-SAFE lists several of its partners, which includes national organizations like Customs and Border Patrol and the FBI, as well as local law enforcement like the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Department. The New Orleans Police Department is not listed as a partner on the website.

The only mention of facial recognition on the LA-SAFE website can be found on a linked PDF within the organization’s privacy policy. In that document, facial recognition is listed in the ‘Use Limitation’ section among a set of “individual identifiers” that LA-SAFE may use to identify the subject in a criminal investigation.

In response to queries seeking clarification about how New Orleans police and the state police collaborate in using facial recognition to investigate cases, a state police spokesperson said they “cannot comment on current investigative tools and techniques.”

The Louisiana ACLU said that the 2018 French Quarter mugging case was the first time their organization saw hard evidence of NOPD tapping the state’s facial recognition technology. “We had heard some rumors” ACLU attorney Hamilton said. “We learned about the specifics through this case.”

The Louisiana ACLU discovered the case when the public defender working on behalf of the robbery suspect filed a motion challenging the probable cause used to arrest his client. The judge called for a hearing and both officers involved in the case — NOPD detective Aaron Harrelson and LA-SAFE state police technician Jordan Morris — took the stand, walking the judge through their investigation.

During his testimony, Detective Harrison insisted that he had not requested facial recognition be run in his case, and indicated that he was “not aware” that LA-SAFE was using the program in this investigation.

State technician Morris described combing through approximately 200 potential matches generated by the facial recognition program. After narrowing down a suspect through some manual visual scanning, she believed she had her match. “We just kind of look at and decide if it could be a possible lead,” she testified. From there, the match went to her supervisor, and then back to NOPD.

Walker Rick, the Orleans public defender representing the man charged, requested that the state turn over the rest of the results from the facial recognition search to the defense. An attorney for the state police informed the court that the unit does not save the results of its searches.

Ultimately, Rick’s client took a plea deal. Rick told OneZero that he was “alarmed” by what he believes is a “serious risk of an error” in how facial recognition is being used as it was in his client’s case.

“It’s one thing when it’s a computer making decisions and processing info — and I’m skeptical of that,” Rick said. “But when it’s a computer making decisions and processing info then filtered through law enforcement personnel making decisions, that was pretty scary.”

Privacy advocates are pushing for municipalities to ban facial recognition data collection by public agencies. They argue that data-sharing agreements within law enforcement networks, combined with the massive quantity of data available, make this technology particularly dangerous to civil liberties.

To date, three U.S. cities — Oakland, San Francisco, and Somerville, Massachusetts — have adopted such legislation. State-level legislation has also been introduced in Michigan, New York, California, and Massachusetts. Currently, there are no such bans being considered in New Orleans or at the Louisiana state legislature.

Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer says that episodes like the case in New Orleans underscore how complicated it is to effectively legislate facial recognition technology. City officials may claim they don’t use the technology, but shared databases make those claims moot. That, Greer says, is “the reality of government surveillance.”

“Once our sensitive personal data has been collected, it doesn’t stay put,” Greer said.

Independent journalist

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