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Hold Private Police Partners Accountable, Too

For-profit companies are making millions with special access to NYPD information

Cross-posted from the New York Daily News.

Private partnerships with law enforcement are big business for Silicon Valley. Amid reports that Amazon quietly shopped its facial recognition technology to immigration officials, here in New York we recently learned that the NYPD spent years secretly providing surveillance footage of New Yorkers to train IBM’s object-recognition software. This technology aims to comb through video footage and identify individuals based on their clothing, hair color, even supposed ethnicity.

The police department promises that it never used any features that enabled racial targeting, and claims it consulted with key stakeholders and elected officials about its partnership. But there’s no evidence the public or City Council were ever made aware of a program that used unsuspecting New Yorkers as test subjects. It is time for the Council to step in and impose overdue transparency and accountability measures.

The city’s police have a history of resisting efforts to get their surveillance tools into the sunlight. In 2016, we at the Brennan Center filed a public records request with the NYPD for information about its predictive policing program, which analyzes various data, including historical crime data, to predict likely hotspots for crime. This is problematic because relying on historical data to predict future crime can reinforce existing biases that cause overpolicing of communities of color.

The NYPD refused to produce a single document; among other things, the department argued that providing information would breach its agreements with vendors. The Brennan Center sued, and the state court ordered the department to produce responsive information, including its correspondence with potential vendors.

Public-private policing partnerships also raise significant privacy concerns. For example, criminal data that was meant to be expunged or is incorrect, such as a faulty gang classification, can end up in a private database with no public review. Indeed, some companies have even claimed that analyses based on police data belong to the business, not the police.

This is precisely what Palantir Technologies — a data analytics firm that works with intelligence agencies and police departments nationwide — told the NYPD. Under its partnership with the police, Palantir received arrest records, license plate numbers and parking tickets in order to trace connections between crimes and people. After the contract ended, Palantir refused to return its analyses in a useable format, claiming that doing so would expose their trade secrets.

The NYPD also partners with Vigilant Solutions, a company that collects and hosts a nationwide database of license plate photos and related location data. Vigilant allows its customers to share their license plate reads with the company’s other law enforcement customers. If the NYPD opted in to this program, information about New Yorkers’ daily travels could be shared with other state or federal law enforcement agencies participating in this privately administered information sharing.

One of Vigilant Solutions’ newest law enforcement customers? Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Which is to say, it’s possible ICE could use NYPD license plate data to track the movements of undocumented individuals as they move about New York, undermining the city’s claim to be a sanctuary for the undocumented and underscoring the high stakes of public-private relationships.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Council should schedule a new hearing for the POST Act, which would compel the NYPD to release information about its practices and contracts with private companies, following the lead of other cities. We can’t hold police accountable unless we hold their private partners accountable, too.

(Image: Drew Angerer/Getty)