Police are still using Microsoft’s high-tech surveillance system

Microsoft last week joined other tech giants in pledging that it would not sell its facial recognition technology to law enforcement.

But despite the public promise to protect privacy, a Microsoft-developed intricate system of surveillance technology remains in use on New York City streets, which critics say allows officers to keep tabs on citizens without their knowledge.

The Domain Awareness System (DAS) is a partnership between the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Microsoft created in 2012 as a counter-terrorism measure. But a surveillance technology watchdog group claims the technology could be used as a real-time surveillance map of the city — and raises the same privacy concerns as facial recognition technology.

“We think that the DAS represents the exact same risks that facial recognition does since these systems of mass surveillance lead to wrongful arrests and even police violence, and as George Floyd proved to so many Americans, any police encounter can be a matter of life or death,” said Albert Fox Cahn, director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), an organization that fights to end discriminatory surveillance.

The DAS uses cameras, license plate readers, and radiological sensors throughout New York City’s five boroughs. A mobile version of the system was released in 2014, allowing police officers access to relevant 911 data, wanted posters, and alerts such as Amber Alerts. 

The system includes both real-time public closed-circuit television cameras (an estimated 9,000), as well as cameras owned and operated by private entities, which include Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, and Citigroup, according to a 2016 Fortune article and STOP.

According to the NYPD’s privacy guidelines for the DAS system, the system is in use “24 hours a day, seven days a week, in a professional manner and only in furtherance of legitimate law enforcement and public safety purposes.”

The use guidelines state the system will be used for counter-terrorism purposes, but a stipulation in its policy section said the software used in the DAS system “may utilize or be integrated with systems and technologies deployed by other bureaus and divisions of the NYPD.”

An NYPD spokesperson told Digital Trends that DAS does not and has never utilized facial recognition software.

A Microsoft spokesperson referred Digital Trends to their previous statements about facial recognition technology, saying the company has “been focused on developing and implementing strong principles that govern our use of facial recognition, and we’ve been calling for strong government regulation.”

“We do not sell our facial recognition technology to US police departments today, and until there is a strong national law grounded in human rights, we will not sell this technology to police departments,” the spokesperson said.

But Microsoft declined to respond to questions about the other surveillance technology involved with the DAS, or whether it would continue to permit the NYPD to use the technology.

The NYPD uses a predictive policing algorithm with the DAS which can show where crimes may be more prevalent. The predictive algorithm, called Patternizr, was revealed last year but had been in use since 2016, according to an Associated Press report.

Although the data itself amounts to a collection of numbers and locations, the underlying police practices that led to the data collection may be fraught with racial bias, according to an article in the Washington University Law Review.

“The initial predictive policing projects have raised the question of whether this data-driven focus serves merely to enable, or even justify, a high-tech version of racial profiling,” the article states. “If the underlying data is biased, then how can a data-driven system based on that data not also be biased?”

An NYPD spokesperson did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about the DAS’s use of predictive policing algorithms.

Aside from predictive policing, Cahn is especially concerned that this system’s technologies could be turned against the thousands of demonstrators who have been protesting police brutality and racism. 

The NYPD previously surveyed Black Lives Matter protesters by tracking social media accounts and maintaining dozens of photos of activists who took part in Black Lives Matter protests years ago, which was first reported last year in The Appeal.

“We are deeply concerned about the way the NYPD is churning its surveillance tools on the public, including scraping social media to match protesters,” Cahn said. 

Microsoft’s involvement in these surveillance tools overshadows its public commitment not to sell facial recognition technology to U.S. police departments, Cahn added. He accused Microsoft’s pledge of being a PR stunt.

“It’s completely unethical for tech giants to continue to profit by perpetuating mass surveillance,” Cahn said. “While these companies have quietly acknowledged that facial recognition perpetuates racism and police violence, they still haven’t come to terms with the way their surveillance products run contrary to American values.”

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