When Microsoft announced to much fanfare that they wouldn’t sell police facial recognition, almost no one asked the urgent follow-up question: “What about your other surveillance technology?” The truth is that Microsoft wasn’t selling police facial recognition to begin with, so their “principled stand” was nothing more than free PR. But there is a much less well-known system that Microsoft has sold to police for years, one that is even worse than facial recognition: The Domain Awareness System (DAS). Microsoft developed the DAS with the NYPD more than a decade ago, integrating tens of thousands of cameras, license plate readers, transit data points, and more. This system forms the backbone of New York’s surveillance-to-prison pipeline, leading to countless stops, arrests, and acts of violence against New Yorkers of color. According to recently released NYPD data, officers were more than five times as likely to kill Black New Yorkers than their white neighbors, an appalling statistic that surprises few in the aftermath of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, and far too many other police killings. Microsoft’s technology enables the constant surveillance behind far too much of this police violence. When New York was ordered to end its stop-and-frisk program of harassment, it didn’t. It simply took its analog abuses online, using the DAS to replace physical searches with digital ones. Since its introduction, the DAS has grown to include more than 20,000 CCTV cameras, police-worn body cameras, license plate readers, radiation scanners, drones, 911 calls, and unknown commercial and interagency intelligence databases. This data can be analyzed in real time and stored indefinitely, putting an Orwellian surveillance state in the palm of all of the NYPD’s 36,000-plus officers’ hands. This is why 18 civil rights and community-based organizations came together to call on Microsoft to “Ditch the DAS” and end its surveillance partnership with the NYPD. The group asked the tech giant to agree “that no city should be surveilled the way the DAS tracks New York” and to end its sale and support of this product. It’s unclear how often this panopticon results in any helpful leads, but it’s very clear that it has been targeted at activists of color for exercising their First Amendment rights. Simply saying “Black Lives Matter” can be enough to place you in an NYPD database.
A suspicious profit motive
Microsoft didn’t make its recent announcement out of the goodness of its heart. Three days earlier, more than 250 Microsoft employees delivered a letter detailing how they personally witnessed or endured police violence. The employees called on Microsoft to support the demands of Black Lives Matter Seattle, canceling the company’s contract with the Seattle Police Department, and publicly supporting the SPD’s defunding. When Microsoft responded and “took a stand against facial recognition,” it claimed that the “bottom line for us is to protect the human rights of people as this technology is deployed.” But why then continue to sell the Domain Awareness System, which helps power the NYPD’s own facial recognition software? Could the difference be the millions Microsoft stands to make? The NYPD is set to spend $31.4 million on updates to the DAS in 2020 alone. But the profits don’t end there. Since 2012, Microsoft has partnered with the NYPD to sell customized versions of DAS to Washington, D.C., Singapore, and Brazil. Shockingly, this partnership with the NYPD means the City of New York receives a 30% commission each time the system is sold. Currently, New York’s City Council is proposing $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD, but it’s unclear how cities will respond to pressure to cut police funding. Will they meet activists’ demands and let communities reimagine what public safety looks like, or will they double down on surveillance systems such as DAS? The risk isn’t hypothetical. In 2013, Camden, New Jersey, rebuilt its police department from scratch, but it only expanded its use of surveillance, including surveillance software. Meanwhile, Microsoft and the NYPD pitch DAS as an alternative to high police salaries. In an age of reduced police budgets, DAS could just become the latest and most profitable form of policing techno-solutionism. The logic of DAS is the same biased and broken logic of facial recognition. The impact on overpoliced communities of color is the same. The only difference is the profits DAS brings in for Microsoft. The company is quick to make bold proclamations about human rights, but the question is whether one of the world’s wealthiest companies will put its money where its mouth is.
Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center, a New York-based civil rights and privacy group and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. Will Luckman is an organizer at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center.