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Amnesty International calls for a ban on facial recognition in New York City

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Activists call the ban ‘a matter of life and death’

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Amnesty International has launched a new campaign against facial recognition titled Ban The Scan — and is launching with a demand for New York City to halt police and government use of the technology.

Amnesty argues facial recognition is incompatible with basic privacy rights, and will exacerbate structural racism in policing tactics. “New Yorkers should be able to go out about their daily lives without being tracked by facial recognition,” said Matt Mahmoudi, an AI and human rights researcher with Amnesty. “Other major cities across the US have already banned facial recognition, and New York must do the same.”

Amnesty is joined in the New York portion of the campaign by a range of groups, including the Urban Justice Center, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the city’s Public Advocate office.

The New York Police Department has run afoul of facial recognition critics before, most notably when it used facial recognition to locate and arrest a Black Lives Matter activist in August. The department claims it only uses facial recognition to generate leads, and doesn’t make arrests based on the information. Still, many civil liberties groups find the existing protections inadequate.

The Ban the Scan campaign is launching with a website that will allow users to leave comments on the NYPD’s policies through a local public oversight rule. Later, Amnesty plans to build in a tool for filing Freedom of Information Law requests, and in May, a tool to geolocate facial-recognition-capable cameras throughout the city.

“For years, the NYPD has used facial recognition to track tens of thousands of New Yorkers, putting New Yorkers of color at risk of false arrest and police violence,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center in a statement. “Banning facial recognition won’t just protect civil rights: it’s a matter of life and death.”