The New York Police Department (NYPD) must comply with a public records request regarding its use of facial recognition surveillance on protestors during the summer of 2020, according to a just-released court ruling.
The ruling comes after NYPD rejected a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request from Amnesty International and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project about police surveillance methods against activists during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, leading both organizations to sue the NYPD last year. The police department argued that the request would cover over 30 million documents and would be “unreasonably burdensome.”
New York Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Love rejected the NYPD’s reasoning. Legal teams from NYPD and Amnesty International met since the lawsuit was filed and narrowed the number of documents down to 2,700 in total, an amount that Love called “far more reasonable” in the ruling. The judge also ordered both Amnesty International and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project to resubmit their FOIL requests, tailoring them to the newly agreed upon slate of documents.
Last year, documents revealed that NYPD had purchased over $159 million in surveillance technology since 2007, through a “Special Expenses Fund” that had little public oversight. The documents were released just a month after the passage of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act in New York, which terminated the NYPD’s Special Expenses Fund.
Still, the department has come under fire for surveilling civilians since the passage of the POST Act. In February, Mayor Eric Adams embraced facial recognition technology—and expanded the NYPD’s use of it.
“If you’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter—no matter what, they can see and identify who you are without violating the rights of people,” Adams said in late January as he pushed a new plan to end gun violence. “It’s going to be used for investigatory purposes.”
The ruling did not set a timeline for documents to be released, but Amnesty International celebrated it as a step toward more oversight of police use of facial recognition.
“New Yorkers demanding racial justice have a right to know the full details of NYPD’s use of facial recognition technology during the BLM protests,” said Matt Mahmoudi, Amnesty International’s researcher on artificial intelligence and human rights in a statement. “This ruling recognizes that the NYPD broke the law in withholding this information and is a significant step in holding the NYPD accountable for its use of discriminatory surveillance. It is a damning indictment of the NYPD’s lack of transparency and accountability to the public that it took a lawsuit to achieve this.”