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UCF brings its own version of artificial intelligence to Orlando’s real-time mass surveillance efforts

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Photo courtesy of Mahdi M. Kalayeh, researcher on the UCF CRCV paper "Improving Facial Attribute Prediction using Semantic Segmentation."

UCF researchers purchased 10 cameras and related equipment with the NIJ grant money, including a server and storage, to establish a "community computer vision enhanced camera network" in the Rosemont neighborhood of west Orlando.

But starting in 2017, the project was plagued by delays. The city's technology management division took over the camera network, which meant agreements had to be renegotiated. OPD had to move the IRIS room to its new headquarters on South Street. Researchers struggled to keep the workstation staffed, and expanding construction sites on Interstate 4 repeatedly disrupted the test camera's video streams, Surette says. And, like the city's first pilot with Amazon Rekognition, scanty bandwidth on the police department's computers meant researchers at the workstation could only use the software with no more than two cameras for real-time analysis, according to Surette.

Emails requested by Orlando Weekly show Rosa Akhtarkhavari, Orlando's chief information officer and the driving force behind Rekognition inside City Hall, tried to involve UCF researchers in the Rekognition project by including them in at least one general discussion in which Amazon developers talked about how the city's police, traffic and fire departments could use their technology. But ultimately, Surette says, UCF decided not to become involved in the pilot.

"The move to the new building in combination with local construction projects resulted in the significant disruption and downtime of the existing police IRIS camera network," the study said. "The purchase of cameras and support technology was additionally delayed by a lag in camera equipment specifications from the City of Orlando Technology Management Division."

Due to delays, the equipment purchased by UCF was ultimately transferred to OPD. Researchers debuted a working computer vision workstation with UCF's software on June 12 that streams and duplicates nine video feeds before the project ended that month.

"The project cumulated with a well-received demonstration of the developed computer vision capabilities and workstation to the Orlando Police Department staff at project's conclusion," the study said. "OPD is considering means to continue to staff the workstation in partnership with UCF and negotiations with OPD regarding on-going utilization ... are in progress."

While UCF researchers turned in their study to the NIJ in October, Orlando was still assessing whether to continue funding students to monitor the computer vision workstation for research purposes. It currently sits unused in the IRIS room and is not being used by the department in its day-to-day policing, former Deputy Chief Mark Canty, who has since resigned from OPD to join former Chief John Mina at the Orange County Sheriff's Office, told the Weekly.

"Right now, it's not being monitored," Canty says. "When the grant ended, that kind of ended [UCF's] funds to pay for those students. We're trying to assess whether we're going to continue on and keep the program going."

Despite the UCF workstation hitting a financial roadblock and Amazon's Rekognition program still being in the pilot phase, Akhtarkhavari sees no limits to the technologies Orlando might use to improve policing and advance itself as one of the nation's "smart cities" – urban areas that invest in technology and intelligent design to create sustainable high-quality housing and jobs.

"I'm envisioning a future where the city's going to use whatever is available to address the city's needs," she says. "Whether that's going to be UCF, Amazon, Microsoft, you know, the kid who's writing a solution in their garage – whatever's going to address our business needs can be stacked and support our mission. ... We have to test it, we have to prove it works, and then we have to look at the cost for that and decide if the value and accuracy is worth it for us."

Potentially, OPD could use both Amazon Rekognition and UCF's software to analyze the same video streams, Akhtarkhavari adds.

"Obviously none of that is in production," she says. "At this point, they're working on two separate projects. Now, the city needs might intersect, so I'm not saying there is any defined role for one or the other at this point. Each project on its own has to show that it is providing value and it is cost-effective. Then we'll figure out which one we want to implement and how."

Since the city's partnership with Amazon was revealed, civil liberties advocates have condemned the use of facial recognition and similar technologies by law enforcement, calling them an intrusive surveillance technique rife with potential for abuse with no federal or state laws to regulate it.

"We're basically talking about attaching artificial intelligence to surveillance cameras," says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. "As the AI gets better and better, it will allow individuals to be monitored in more intrusive and accurate ways, and that has the potential to create real, chilling effects on our society. How would you feel driving home with a police car behind you? I don't want to feel that way all the time."

Canty argues that while OPD has noted the public's concern, the department is committed to ensuring it uses the technology in a proper way that allows for community input. As he puts it, "This is not Minority Report."

"The goal is to look for people who are out there trying to hurt other people," he says. "We're looking for violent criminals and people who are in danger, in cases where we have information. It's not just scanning a bunch of photos and hopefully we get something. We're working a specific case, we have a specific suspect or endangered person, and we're going to try to find them to prevent them from either harming somebody or to be recovered."

Civil liberties organizations including the ACLU and the Project on Government Oversight, as well as Amazon's own employees, have pleaded with the company to stop selling its product to law enforcement agencies. But the retail and shipping giant has ignored these requests, says Jake Laperruque, senior counsel with POGO.

Documents uncovered by POGO reveal that officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement met with Amazon last summer so that the company could pitch its Rekognition program to the federal agency.

Laperruque argues that real-time facial recognition surveillance could help the government track undocumented immigrants simply because of their legal status and scare them away from public places where cameras are located. The risk of misidentification is prevalent in facial recognition systems, particularly among dark-skinned women, and advocates fear a mistake could lead to a wrongful arrest or a deadly encounter.

"City governments and police departments need to put the question before their citizens who are going to be affected by these programs before they roll them out," Laperruque says. "Police and federal agencies spy first, ask permission later. This is highly advanced surveillance technology. These are the types of questions that should be going to the public before law enforcement is putting these tools into practice."

At a December meeting with Florida lawmakers, Mina was asked whether the Orange County Sheriff's Office would be participating in any facial recognition programs. State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who was at the meeting, said Mina confirmed twice that "no facial recognition" would be brought to the county.

OCSO spokesperson Michelle Guido also told Orlando Weekly that "there were no plans in the immediate future for the Sheriff's Office to undertake any kind of facial recognition program." Asked if the Sheriff's Office would consider using UCF's software, Guido said there were "no plans to adopt any of those programs at this time."

Facial recognition technology is virtually unregulated by state and federal laws, and there are currently no bills in the Legislature that address the issue. Eskamani said that while the use of this technology is being watched in Central Florida because of Orlando's involvement with Amazon, it's "not on everybody else's radar."

Still, Eskamani is encouraging organizations to take the "Safe Face Pledge" started by the Algorithmic Justice League and the Center on Technology & Privacy at Georgetown Law. The pledge promises to mitigate abuse of facial analysis technology. Among other things, it asks tech companies to refrain from selling facial recognition software to law enforcement "unless a governing legislative body has explicitly and publicly considered all potential harms and authorized use of the technology."

"This has to lead to a larger conversation on policy," Eskamani says. "With this technology, we have to make sure we don't oppress people's privacy rights."

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