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Three months ago, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that web giant Amazon facial recognition technology in the United States had delivered to certain police departments. Today, it appears that IBM has worked with the New York City Police Department to develop a system that allows the police to search for people based on certain physical characteristics.

Based on confidential business documents and interviews with developers who worked on the project, The Intercept reports that IBM started developing the technology roughly ten years ago. It had to be possible to identify people on the basis of skin colour, hair colour, gender, age and certain facial characteristics.

Tested in practice

The artificial intelligence was trained on the basis of thousands of photographs of roughly fifty cameras that the NYPD has. On this basis, the system learned to recognise an enormous number of things, including the colour of the skin, the colour of the clothes, but also physical characteristics and things such as unguarded parcels, people entering forbidden areas and cars driving against the traffic.

According to reports, the system was tested in practice in 2012. Spokesman Peter Donald says to The Intercept that the tools were only evaluated and that the police officers who worked with them were instructed not to include skin colour in their searches. Several elected leaders and stakeholders would know about the project, although it has not been made public.

Not in use

It is not certain what the results of the programme or the trial are, but in the end it was not rolled out more widely. Also, the police department rejected a version of the software that could identify people on ethnicity. In addition, Donald emphasizes that all photos have been treated confidentially.

In his statement, he states that visual material has indeed been shared with IBM, but that the company has a contract that states that all data must be treated confidentially, even if the contract is terminated. IBM itself states to VentureBeat that it is committed to the development and use of new technology and that it values diversity and inclusion in its datasets.

Controversy about facial recognition

Meanwhile, in some countries, including the United States, there is a fierce public debate about the use of facial recognition technology by governments. So the ACLU demonstrated that Amazon’s Rekognition identified 28 Congressmen as criminals. The London Metropolitan Police had previously found that, for each correct identification, 49 errors were made.

This raises questions among many critics about the applicability of the technology. After all, people are made suspicious in some applications, even though they may just be innocent. Therefore, facial recognition technology would not yet be ready for a wider roll-out.

This news article was automatically translated from Dutch to give Techzine.eu a head start. All news articles after September 1, 2019 are written in native English and NOT translated. All our background stories are written in native English as well. For more information read our launch article.