In the decade after the 9/11 attacks, the New York City Police Department moved to put millions of New Yorkers under constant watch. Warning of terrorism threats, the department created a plan to carpet Manhattan’s downtown streets with thousands of cameras and had, by 2008, centralized its video surveillance operations to a single command center. Two years later, the NYPD announced that the command center, known as the Lower Manhattan Security Coordination Center, had integrated cutting-edge video analytics software into select cameras across the city.
The video analytics software captured stills of individuals caught on closed-circuit TV footage and automatically labeled the images with physical tags, such as clothing color, allowing police to quickly search through hours of video for images of individuals matching a description of interest. At the time, the software was also starting to generate alerts for unattended packages, cars speeding up a street in the wrong direction, or people entering restricted areas.
Over the years, the NYPD has shared only occasional, small updates on the program’s progress. In a 2011 interview with Scientific American, for example, Inspector Salvatore DiPace, then commanding officer of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, said the police department was testing whether the software could box out images of people’s faces as they passed by subway cameras and subsequently cull through the images for various unspecified “facial features.”
While facial recognition technology, which measures individual faces at over 16,000 points for fine-grained comparisons with other facial images, has attracted significant legal scrutiny and media attention, this object identification software has largely evaded attention. How exactly this technology came to be developed and which particular features the software was built to catalog have never been revealed publicly by the NYPD.
Now, thanks to confidential corporate documents and interviews with many of the technologists involved in developing the software, The Intercept and the Investigative Fund have learned that IBM began developing this object identification technology using secret access to NYPD camera footage. With access to images of thousands of unknowing New Yorkers offered up by NYPD officials, as early as 2012, IBM was creating new search features that allow other police departments to search camera footage for images of people by hair color, facial hair, and skin tone.
IBM declined to comment on its use of NYPD footage to develop the software. However, in an email response to questions, the NYPD did tell The Intercept that “Video, from time to time, was provided to IBM to ensure that the product they were developing would work in the crowded urban NYC environment and help us protect the City. There is nothing in the NYPD’s agreement with IBM that prohibits sharing data with IBM for system development purposes. Further, all vendors who enter into contractual agreements with the NYPD have the absolute requirement to keep all data furnished by the NYPD confidential during the term of the agreement, after the completion of the agreement, and in the event that the agreement is terminated.”
In an email to The Intercept, the NYPD confirmed that select counterterrorism officials had access to a pre-released version of IBM’s program, which included skin tone search capabilities, as early as the summer of 2012. NYPD spokesperson Peter Donald said the search characteristics were only used for evaluation purposes and that officers were instructed not to include the skin tone search feature in their assessment. The department eventually decided not to integrate the analytics program into its larger surveillance architecture, and phased out the IBM program in 2016.
After testing out these bodily search features with the NYPD, IBM released some of these capabilities in a 2013 product release. Later versions of IBM’s software retained and expanded these bodily search capabilities. (IBM did not respond to a question about the current availability of its video analytics programs.)
Asked about the secrecy of this collaboration, the NYPD said that “various elected leaders and stakeholders” were briefed on the department’s efforts “to keep this city safe,” adding that sharing camera access with IBM was necessary for the system to work. IBM did not respond to a question about why the company didn’t make this collaboration public. Donald said IBM gave the department licenses to apply the system to 512 cameras, but said the analytics were tested on “fewer than fifty.” He added that IBM personnel had access to certain cameras for the sole purpose of configuring NYPD’s system, and that the department put safeguards in place to protect the data, including “non-disclosure agreements for each individual accessing the system; non-disclosure agreements for the companies the vendors worked for; and background checks.”
Civil liberties advocates contend that New Yorkers should have been made aware of the potential use of their physical data for a private company’s development of surveillance technology. The revelations come as a city council bill that would require NYPD transparency about surveillance acquisitions continues to languish, due, in part, to outspoken opposition from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD.