Panic over spike in shootings leads directly to new state of surveillance
After a series of gruesome shootings, New Yorkers are rightfully scared. What crime will stop us in our tracks and be splashed on the pages of the tabloids?
This fear, felt more and more across the country, is all too real. Unfortunately, many of the monitoring systems to be sold as the solution are, in fact, a fantasy. But it’s not just wishful thinking to hope that Silicon Valley will be our salvation; it’s dangerous.
The most publicized example comes from New York City Mayor Eric Adams, whose new “Planfor public safety exposes everything from the expanded use of plainclothes officers to new forms of artificial intelligence. Many of the policing tactics Adams now offers Are familiar to New Yorkers; many are strategies that Adams himself opposed – as a former cop turned police reform activist.
But while technologies such as facial recognition and “gun detection” may be new, they pose the same risks of abuse as the analog crime-prevention tools he once protested against. Not only does Adams’ plan risk rolling back recent civil rights victories, such as restrictions on custody and solitary confinement– With President Joe Biden visiting today, Adams’ clumsy plan for New York could turn into a ruinous roadmap for the country.
Biden’s visit to New York comes as his administration struggles to deal with the increase in shootings over the past two years, which has been fueled in large part by societal disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. . Predictably, as millions of Americans faced unprecedented economic, health and security strains, the upheaval and insecurity tragically translated into violence. Take a traumatized country, add a record increase in gun sales and you’ve created a powder keg.
Worse, Biden’s anti-gun efforts are continuously thwarted by GOP opposition, not just in Congress, but increasingly in the courts. As I write, Supreme Court justices continue to deliberate the future of New York City’s gun law and are set to strike down our licensing requirements, as well than others across the country.
Under that pressure, the danger is that a Biden administration, desperate for anything to show progress on public safety — and fearful of attacks from the GOP in the midterm elections — will adopt the flawed surveillance proposals of Adams on the national stage.
Biden has already developed a troubling oversight record during his tenure. Over the past few weeks, the IRS has been faced with national outrage to force Americans to use facial recognition to access their tax records. A growing number of federal agencies are using facial recognition under the Biden presidency, including groups ranging from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to national parks.
If Adams were to follow Biden’s lead, he would undermine efforts by progressive groups across the country to ban invasive tools like facial recognition.
Parts of Adams’ plan feel like stepping out of a dystopian time machine.
In 1999, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani saw growing opposition to stop-and-frisk from New Yorkers, including then NYPD Lieutenant Eric Adamswho rightfully blasted Giuliani for subjecting hundreds of thousands of young black and brown New Yorkers to violent harassment at the hands of the NYPD, saying: “New Yorkers don’t want it [the NYPD] got loose again.”
Flash forward 23 years, and now Mayor Adams wants to do just that, reinstating undercover units that were disbanded for carrying out aggressive, unlawful, and often deadly arrests of black New Yorkers. But where the extensive stop and frisk will impact thousands of New Yorkers, Adams’ extensive surveillance will impact millions.
Adam vaunted that facial recognition could “take a picture of your face and in eight seconds see everything you have in public view…” But he never addressed the tech bias against black New Yorkers or brown. Facial recognition has not only proven more prone to errors for black and Latina people in the lab, this leads to increasing number of false arrests in the real world. The way the technology reproduces the same patterns of abuse as stop-and-frisk.
Worse, Adams calls for “new technology to identify suspects and those carrying weapons” using “software to identify dangerous individuals and those carrying weapons.”
Once again we are told that Silicon Valley has a crystal ball for predicting pre-crime, and again the claims are false. Not only is “gun detection” software useless whenever someone hides a gun in their jacket or bag, but it can easily mistake everyday objects like a wallet or cane for a armed. And anything that looks like a gun isn’t one. I am terrified of the day the police shot and killed a child wielding a water gun that was flagged by this software.
Every time gun detection AI sends frantic officers to a suspected crime scene, it creates a risk for anyone nearby, especially black and brown New Yorkers. Adams himself had described the risks. Recalling his time as an undercover officer, he noted that there was a risk whenever he encountered his white colleagues. Even though he was at work, “If they see me with a gun in my hand, I have a problem.”
And Adams knows all too well how often American police surveillance powers are misused and abused against communities of color. As an activist, he structured his organization with “the experience of understanding how law enforcement, with COINTELPRO and other tactics, have infiltrated organizations of color.” COINTELPRO, the infamous 20th century political dissent monitoring program is just the most famous example of such infiltration. As Adams admitted more than 20 years ago, the tools we give the NYPD to fight crime will quickly backfire on dissidents.
The next few days will decide a lot, not just for New York, but for the nation. He will decide whether a Democratic party that just months ago championed the cause of Black Lives Matter will return to its roots of mass incarceration. He will decide whether civil rights milestones such as bail reform and the elimination of stop-and-frisk are set aside for political expediency. And it will decide whether biased and untested new surveillance technology is adopted for a political publicity stunt, even if it puts so many of us at risk.