How the NYPD is Using Your Facebook and Instagram to "Fight Crime"

The New York City Police Department has gone high tech in their continuing quest to stop crime and catch potential criminals. Some of their methods include the high tech command center know as the Domain Awareness System and the estimated 4,468 surveillance cameras, as of 2006, in the streets of New York City. It seems that the computer monitor is replacing the beat cop. Recent revelations have shown that the NYPD is not only focusing on their own information, they are going through your information as well.

DNAinfo.com is reporting that the NYPD has set up a unit known as the Facial Recognition Unit that attempts to identify suspects through photos posted to Instagram and Facebook. The high tech unit takes photographs and runs it through facial recognition software to produce a match. The source of the photographs can be from sources other than social media, such as mug shots or surveillance cameras. This is just the latest in a push by law enforcement agencies to utilize the information we publish into the Internet.

The NYPD intruding onto social media is nothing new. Already the department has admitted to monitoring events on Twitter and Facebook, even creating a formal unit for such purposes. The rise of social media in everyday communication has seen the NYPD launch "social-media driven investigations," going as far as having the officers conducting them establish aliases and use laptops with untraceable Internet cards.

Use of facial recognition technology is not limited to just the NYPD. The New York State DMV has utilized facial recognition software to cut down on identity fraud and people illegally obtaining a second license while the first was suspended. The program has resulted in more then 2,500 arrests. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been working on a nationwide facial recognition system, part of the $1 billion Next Generation Identification program.

The intrusion of the surveillance state into areas such as social media is troubling for a number reasons. While police departments claim that such measure are necessary for fighting crime and federal agencies wish to use them to combat terrorism, privacy advocates fear that such technologies will make it much easier to place people under surveillance. In the past the FBI has put those who threatened to upset the status quo, such as Martin Luther King, under intense surveillance. In 2007 the American Civil Liberties Union released a report detailing the Pentagon monitoring at least 186 anti-military protests. During the Occupy Wall Street protests the FBI conducted extensive surveillance on the movement. 

Privacy advocates worry that increasing the ease by which police departments can identify people at certain locations may make it easier to mask abuses of civil liberties. Instead of having to investigate and arrest all the protesters at a public protest, law enforcement agencies could utilize facial recognition technology to selectively detain organizers, cutting off the organization of the protest at its Achilles tendon.

During a Senate hearing on privacy, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) expressed such concerns:

“I fear that the FBI pilot [on facial recognition] could be abused to not only identify protesters at political events and rallies, but to target them for selective jailing and prosecution, stifling their First Amendment rights. Curiously enough, a lot of the presentations on this technology by the Department of Justice show it being used on people attending political events or other public gatherings. I also fear that without further protections, facial recognition technology could be used on unsuspecting civilians innocent of any crime — invading their privacy and exposing them to potential false identifications.”

But with technologies such as Google Glass only making the private sphere of interaction smaller and smaller every day, it seems that absent any restrictions from Washington, law enforcement agencies will have more data to identify you from then ever.