The Los Angeles Police Department has received unanimous approval from the city’s Police Commission to begin recording and storing aerial footage of “protests and other large gatherings” filmed from the cameras attached to their police department’s helicopters, according to the Los Angeles Times.
This new capability — part of an expansion to the department’s “operation readiness” which already has 10 of their 20 helicopters equipped with video technology, but no technology to be recorded or stored — is alarming activists who say the technology amounts to unconstitutional government surveillance.
Critics say they are concerned in particular about the prospect of using controversial facial recognition technology (FRT) in real-time with the helicopter footage — programs that the police department denies having access to, but their claims have since been debunked by uncovered records, the Los Angeles Times reported on in late September.
They found that facial recognition technology has been used nearly 30,000 times in the last decade by the LAPD alone.
“This is the height of state repression and surveillance,” Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles was quoted as saying by the LA Times after hearing the approval for the new LAPD aerial footage storing capabilities, noting that the LAPD already routinely uses helicopters to hover over protests.
“It’s criminalizing our right to protest,” Abdullah concluded.
The unanimous approval came through a Police Commission vote to accept a donation of recording and storing equipment worth $2,150 from the Los Angeles Police Foundation, according to the report.
“Los Angeles Police Foundation is a private philanthropic entity that has long bankrolled equipment desired by the LAPD but not budgeted for or prioritized by the city,” Reuters explained.
The vote sparked discussion over the intended uses of the recording equipment, and the privacy issues many are raising considering the LAPD Deputy Chief peter Zarcone said the footage will be stored “indefinitely.”
Mohammad Tajsar, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, told the LA Times that the recording and long-term storing of protests is “extremely problematic.”
“It’s bad enough that Angelenos in overpoliced neighborhoods have to deal with constant surveillance and harassment from the skies, but the LAPD’s plans to keep that footage forever adds insult to injury,” Tasjar said.
He continued, saying police recordings of protests “really should be understood as an intimidation tactic, to try to prevent people from exercising their right to free speech,” and should “raise red flags all over City Hall.”
Tasjer mentioned the controversial use of facial recognition software that LAPD has access to, noting that this escalates the potential for invasive breaches of people’s privacy — and mistakes to be made.
Facial Recognition Technology
Despite the LAPD repeatedly misleading the public by denying access to facial recognition technology, the LA Times uncovered that the department has used the technology 29,817 times since 2009 — including 3,750 instances since February 2020.
While the LAPD doesn’t have its own facial recognition software, Business Insider notes LA Times reported information that 330 people within the department currently have access to the Los Angeles County Regional Identification System (LACRIS), an interactive criminal database operated by the county, which relies on technology from DataWorks Plus.
But, this database isn’t always accurate.
In a recent test, the facial recognition software used by California police departments incorrectly matched photos of 26 California legislators — 1 in 5 in the test — to mug shots in a recent test of “common-face scanning” capabilities, the ACLU discovered.
“One false match is one too many,” the ACLU commented on the test’s results.
Business Insider details that multiple studies have shown that the software and algorithms behind FRT systems, including the one used by the LAPD, “are more likely to misidentify people based on their skin color and gender, and at least one person has been wrongfully arrested after being misidentified.”
Following the news of this technology’s availability, LAPD spokespeople backtracked denials of using it, and recently told Business Insider, “FRT has been a vital tool that has been utilized to assist in developing criminal leads. FRT does not identify suspects and FRT results alone do not determine who the police arrest.”
Despite the LAPD’s statement, many are still worried about how far this technology will go.
“If you get falsely accused of an arrest, what happens?” Assemblymember Phil Ting, who was among those whose picture was falsely matched to an arrest photo, said at a press conference.
“It could impact your ability to get employment, it absolutely impacts your ability to get housing,” Ting concluded. “There are real people who could have real impacts.”
Additional Reading: Bans on Facial Recognition Technology Spread Across U.S.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer