Police can use facial recognition again after ban in New Orleans, home to sprawling surveillance

Less than two years after passing an ordinance that outlawed facial recognition technologies, New Orleans city council voted last week to allow police to use the controversial tech.

A pair of New Orleans Police Department officers guard a barricade on Bourbon Street

The quick reversal of the ban illustrates the fragility of laws attempting to restrict surveillance tech in the face of violent crime.

Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

A groundbreaking New Orleans prohibition on surveillance tech is disintegrating.

Less than two years after passing an ordinance that outlawed facial recognition technologies, the New Orleans city council voted on Thursday to hand the keys to the controversial surveillance tool back to the city’s police department. The quick reversal illustrates the fragility of laws attempting to restrict increasingly pervasive surveillance tech in the face of violent crime.

New Orleans was already a place where culture bearers and the tourists who flocked to experience their vibrant home could be watched from the city’s Real-Time Crime Center through an expanding network of connected surveillance cameras. Some residents worry that the existing network of cameras will be juiced with added surveillance features as the city contemplates a smart city project.

The 4-2 vote allows the New Orleans Police Department to request use of facial recognition technology to assist in identifying suspects or witnesses in investigating crimes including murder, rape, kidnapping, terrorism, arson and even purse snatching.

For the police and its supporters, facial recognition is seen as one of many ways to help solve crime. “This is all about adding a tool to the toolbox and using it in a rightful, meaningful, constitutional way to give our detectives the support that is needed to further their investigation,” said NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson during Thursday’s city council meeting.

But when it comes to evaluating the tool’s efficacy, the police department is going on a hunch.

A surveillance camera on a lightpost. There are hundreds of networked surveillance cameras installed throughout the city of New Orleans.Photo: Kate Kaye/Protocol

“We keep hearing NOP needs this. This is the silver bullet that is going to stop crime, this facial recognition. But you have no data, sitting here today, telling me that this actually works, that it leads to arrests, convictions or clearance,” said Lesli Harris, one of two New Orleans city council members who voted against the facial recognition measure, during the meeting.

Indeed, despite the fact that the NOPD had used facial recognition technology before the 2020 surveillance tech ban was passed, the department never kept records of how often it was used or whether it facilitated investigations or led to arrests or convictions.

The city’s new rules also clawed back other tech use outlawed in 2020. They now allow police to use cell-site simulators when they obtain a search warrant to locate a known violent crime suspect or help find a missing person in imminent danger. Often called stingrays, cell-site simulators mimic cell phone towers to trick mobile phones in their vicinity into connecting to them to reveal their unique ID and location.

Predictive policing software, which was outlawed in the 2020 ban, still remains off-limits.

"[Y]ou have no data, sitting here today, telling me that this actually works, that it leads to arrests, convictions or clearance.”

NOPD Detective Sgt. David Barnes said during the council meeting that the police department does not intend to use facial recognition to prevent crime, but rather to improve investigations of crimes that have already occurred. “The way that we use this is not to prevent crime. This is not a predictive policing tool; this is an investigative tool,” Barnes said.

People like Renard Bridgewater have anticipated the potential change to the surveillance tech ordinance for months. Bridgewater, a hip-hop artist and community engagement coordinator for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans who has advocated against surveillance tech in the city as a member of the Eye On Surveillance Coalition, has spent hours observing city council meetings this year expecting a vote on legislation that could dilute the impact of the original surveillance ordinance his group supported.

Renard Bridgewater Renard Bridgewater, a hip-hop artist and community engagement coordinator for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, has advocated against surveillance tech in the city.Photo: Kate Kaye/Protocol

“The general consensus that I've observed both online as well as from the submitted public comments in opposition to this ordinance, is that this is not something that a decent majority of residents wanted,” Bridgewater told Protocol in an email after Thursday’s vote. He cited “the lack of information provided by NOPD regarding the cost of the tech, how any collected data would be stored, retained and hopefully purged, how citizens would be able to view any increase in public safety due to the use of this tech and most importantly, the ineffectiveness of these surveillance tools in decreasing criminal activity.”

State-supplied facial recognition tech

“This will not stop crime, but it’s something the police need to be better police,” said New Orleans city council member Freddie King III, who voted in support of the ordinance change.

According to Barnes, the police department will not license facial recognition software themselves; rather, the NOPD will request use of software licensed by the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange, a hub for data and tech used by law enforcement agencies. To find matches and identify possible crime suspects in investigations, the NOPD can now request that the Fusion Exchange use its facial recognition software to perform searches of its database, which includes photos from criminal mugshots and of people who have been fingerprinted or passed through security clearances such as those at airports.

The new legislation states that evidence obtained from facial recognition would not be sufficient on its own to establish probable cause for arrest.

Idemia makes the facial recognition software licensed by the state that NOPD will access, according to New Orleans city council staff. Headquartered in France, Idemia provides algorithmic systems that use biometric data representing fingerprints, irises, faces and tattoos for identification services used by law enforcement and government ID programs such as India’s immense Aadhaar program.

“People commit crime because they are hungry, sick and disenfranchised, and pushed to those extremes, crimes will still be committed no matter what police do.”

Vendor payment records from the state of Louisiana analyzed by Protocol show the state has paid Idemia Identity and Security USA around $1.9 million thus far in 2022, and around $1.6 million in 2021. Idemia, which is currently registered as a lobbyist with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, received far less from the state in 2019 and 2020 – around $164,000 for both years combined. It is not known whether those payments cover the cost to use Idemia’s facial recognition software or other software used for fingerprinting or state identification services. Following an inquiry, a representative for Louisiana’s Fusion Exchange and its Office of Technology Services said the appropriate people with knowledge of the state's use of facial recognition technology were not available to comment for this story.

During Thursday’s meeting, Marvin Arnold, a representative of New Orleans anti-surveillance tech advocacy group Eye on Surveillance, gave a presentation claiming that facial recognition is biased and racist.

Facial recognition technology has been found to produce inaccurate results that disproportionately affect people with darker skin tones. For instance, a 2019 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a U.S. agency that provides detailed assessments of facial recognition algorithms, quantified accuracy of face recognition algorithms according to demographic groups defined by sex, age and race or country of birth.

The NIST study found false-positive rates were highest among West and East African and East Asian people and lowest among Eastern European people — generally with a factor of 100 more false positives.

Hundreds of companies submit specific facial recognition algorithms for NIST testing and often publicize incremental improvements in accuracy according to a variety of metrics, such as how frequently they produce false positives or how well they perform in matching one photo to several images in a database. Idemia claims its identification system ranks highly when it comes to accuracy, demographic parity and speed when measured in NIST tests. It is not known which versions of Idemia’s algorithmic models are used in software licensed by Louisiana’s Fusion Exchange.

During the meeting, King said the contention that using facial recognition is racist was a faulty one because he, the city’s police chief and some people supporting use of the technology by law enforcement are Black.

Marvin Arnold speaks during New Orleans city council meeting Marvin Arnold, a representative of Eye on Surveillance, a New Orleans anti-surveillance tech advocacy group, spoke during Thursday's city council meeting.Screenshot: Kate Kaye/Protocol

Arnold and others fighting the ordinance reversal argued that giving police access to additional surveillance tech tools will not assuage the root causes of crime. “People commit crime because they are hungry, sick and disenfranchised, and pushed to those extremes, crimes will still be committed no matter what police do,” said Arnold, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Surveillance is trash.”

NOLA’s safety goals spur a sprawling connected surveillance camera network

City residents have reason to be skeptical of the police department’s intentions when it comes to surveillance tech use. After years of assertions that the NOPD did not use face recognition, a 2020 report revealed that the department did have access to the technology through its state and federal partners.

The revelation followed an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2010 and 2011 of the New Orleans Police Department for an alleged pattern of civil rights violations. As a result, the DOJ established a consent decree with the city of New Orleans and the police department in hopes of establishing effective, constitutional and professional law enforcement in the city.

“All I want is a safer city,” said King, who noted during the council meeting that 159 murders had taken place in New Orleans in 2022. A July report showed there were 145 murders in the first half of 2022 in New Orleans, a rate of around 37 murders per 100,000 residents, the highest in the nation. Research from the Council on Criminal Justice shows an upward trending cyclical pattern in the homicide rate in cities throughout the country during the pandemic and amid protests against police violence following George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

The mission to make New Orleans safer inspired a sprawling network of connected cameras; however, use of those cameras and the crime center’s data use was never covered by the city’s 2020 surveillance tech ordinance.

The city’s camera network started small. When New Orleans first began installing security cameras in 2017 as part of a broader $40 million citywide public safety initiative, the plan called for them in just 20 crime hotspots. Today there are at least 800 networked cameras installed in all city council and police districts, some government-owned and some private. The cameras are connected to the New Orleans Real-Time Crime Center, where staff can access video imagery to investigate a crime or monitor for fires or floods.

The Real-Time Crime Center operates under the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and is not part of the New Orleans Police Department. Civil rights advocates who have fought against the slow creep of more cameras and surveillance tech use in New Orleans say decentralized ownership of the cameras and the crime center clouds responsibility, transparency and accountability for camera and data policies and use.

NOPD vehicles also are equipped with license plate readers to help capture carjackers or conduct covert surveillance on drug traffickers. The LPRs are another form of surveillance tech not covered by the ordinance in its old or new form.

Smart city scandal and supercharged surveillance

Concerned that the updated law “impacts civil rights that has future repercussions on women, on people of color or same-sex couples,” following Thursday’s vote, Harris co-sponsored a new ordinance that would ensure that facial recognition cannot be used in relation to crimes involving abortion and consensual sexual acts. That ordinance would be eligible for a vote at the next city council meeting, in August.

“It was important for me to add language so that we had some guardrails around reproductive rights, protecting the rights of gay people and data collection,” Harris told Protocol on Monday.

The promise of increased safety, interconnected infrastructure and improved government services has lured officials in New Orleans toward more tech integration. The city’s surveillance ordinance rollback comes in the wake of a scandal over an effort to install connected streetlights, traffic signals, water meters, WiFi kiosks and data-harvesting sensors all tied into a “city command center” through a now-stalled broadband and “smart city” plan.

"All I want is a safer city."

The project, which involved telco giant Qualcomm and an investment firm founded by former NBA player Magic Johnson, has been held up by a bid-rigging investigation.

Ultimately, if New Orleans does install additional networked city infrastructure, surveillance tech such as facial recognition software could be integrated with hardware hooked up to city streetlamps and other street furniture.

Bridgewater said he recognizes the potential for the so-called smart city plan to supercharge surveillance in New Orleans.

“I do see some form of connection between this new smart cities proposal and the surveillance ordinance,” Bridgewater told Protocol in June. “If we're thinking about the various ways that this surveillance ordinance could potentially correlate with the smart cities proposals, if we already have cameras on the smart city light poles, we could easily put facial recognition in,” Bridgewater said. “We could easily do any number of other forms of surveillance tech, because we already have the infrastructure.”


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