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How a Group of Community Advocates Beat Facial Recognition Surveillance in New Orleans

Vice recently published an article detailing the successful efforts of a grassroots coalition called Eye on Surveillance in New Orleans to stop the use of facial recognition for surveillance. Find the article here.

As the use of facial recognition software by police grows, so does the pushback against it, primarily because of the unfair targeting of people of color that comes as a result of this use. Multiple cities, including Oakland, San Francisco, Portland, and Somerville have already voted to ban facial recognition, and as of December, the newest among these is New Orleans. The use of surveillance technology in Louisiana follows historically high incarceration and murder rates — oft used as a justification for increased surveillance — and begun in 2012 with a secret partnership between the city of New Orleans and the surveillance firm Palantir. The partnership had the goal of implementing facial recognition and predictive policing technology, but the use of this technology was denied by the city for six years.

The city of New Orleans also created the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC), which monitors footage from surveillance cameras across the city, following a mass shooting in 2016. The RTCC was later found to have access to privately owned cameras through the SafeCam program.  A 2017 ordinance that placed cameras in places serving alcoholic beverages was considered as targeting sex workers, and the placement of cameras in neighborhoods where Black youth gathered was also criticized.

Eventually, community activists took a stand by forming Eye on Surveillance, which comprises various different groups of people, including Black youth, musicians, sex workers, and a Jewish activist group. The group organized community events in 2019 to raise awareness to the public of the growing, troubling use of surveillance in New Orleans and held a walk across the city protesting and pointing out the surveillance cameras. Eye on Surveillance then formulated a policy to ban facial recognition technology that was passed in December 2020. It banned cell site simulators, predictive policing, characteristic recognition and tracking software, and facial recognition.

Eye on Surveillance’s victory has positive implications for a town known for wrongful convictions that target people of color, and hopefully the decreased surveillance can work to continue tackling the issue of over-policing of certain communities.

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