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NYPD Under Fire Over Use Of Celebrity Lookalike Photos In Facial Recognition Investigations

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – The NYPD is facing criticism over its use of celebrity photos in facial recognition practices.

A report shows police have used photos of Hollywood stars and even a Knicks player to help track suspects.

The department says facial recognition software has led to arrests in murders, rapes and robberies. Critics, however, say using a celebrity lookalike as the starting point is a flawed practice.

Back in 2017, police were searching for a beer thief but the security footage wasn't clear enough to use the software to identify him.

So instead, police used a picture of a lookalike, which happened to be actor Woody Harrelson. This produced a number of matches and led to an arrest in the case.

MORE: Eye On Cyber: What's The Deal With Facial Recognition Technology?

A Georgetown University report criticizes the practice.

Researcher Clare Garvie wrote, "It's one thing for a company to build a face recognition system designed to help individuals find their celebrity doppelganger or painting lookalike for entertainment purposes. It's quite another to use these techniques to identify criminal suspects, who may be deprived of their liberty and ultimately prosecuted based on the match."

The NYPD responded, saying, "Facial recognition is merely a lead; it is not a positive identification and it is not probable cause to arrest. No one has ever been arrested on the basis of a facial recognition match alone." The department said, furthermore, an investigation is needed to develop evidence linking the suspect to the crime.

Web Extra: Read Full NYPD Statement On Facial Recognition

According to police, facial recognition software was most recently used to identify a man accused of throwing urine at MTA workers in the Bronx. The NYPD also used a photo of New York Knicks play to search its database for a suspect in an assault in Brooklyn.

"If it leads to catching the correct person, then I think that's great. But at the same time, it leaves a lot of room for error," Chinatown resident Georgina Hobson said.

"It goes so much further beyond facial recognition but even to profiling your identity in a way. I mean, that's the next step," said Lower East Side resident Lucas Reckhaus.

"You don't get into trouble, you don't have to worry about it," another person added.

While the NYPD stands by the practice, it says the department is reviewing its facial recognition protocols.

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