Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


New York City Finally Faces Down Facial Recognition

New NYPD technology (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Many of you have heard some of the horror stories already, how facial recognition technology can track our movements in truly creepy ways. For some people, the moment of realization came last winter, when a mother was ejected from the Rockettes and threatened with separation from her daughter through use of facial recognition.

Proponents of the creepy tracking tech claim it keeps us safe, but what was this mother’s crime? She worked for a law firm that had sued the owners of Radio City, where the iconic Christmas show is performed.

The case showed so many that the threat from facial recognition simply can’t be ignored any longer, but we have been doing just that, ignoring the growing threat for years. Facial recognition already tracks New Yorkers at work and at home. It tracks where we shop and where we seek out entertainment. It’s seemingly everywhere, but oftentimes we have no idea.

That may soon change. This week the New York City Council is considering legislation that would begin to ban facial recognition and other biometric technology. If landlords or store owners want to use your body to track your movements, that abuse may soon be a thing of the past. And the legislation couldn’t come a moment too soon.

My colleagues and I first began calling for a ban on facial recognition more than two years ago as part of the Ban The Scan coalition. Since then, the technology has only become cheaper and more easily abused. Surveillance vendors not only scan our faces, but often take images from social media, using our personal photos to track us against our will.

Some of you may use your face to unlock your phone or computer. Don’t worry, that won’t change. Using your face to unlock a device is night and day compared to using millions of New Yorkers’ faces as a tracking tool. If you choose to use facial recognition for convenience, that’s your choice. But the technologies being used in housing, stores, and elsewhere today are used against us, not for us.

These systems log our movements and make our location accessible to landlords and the companies that own stores and venues like Radio City. For tenants, this can mean being watched in your own building, having a constant log of your movements and visitors.

This is particularly alarming for rent-stabilized tenants. Landlords can use these logs to claim a tenant isn’t using an apartment as their primary residence, when really they’re absent for another reason, such as being in the hospital.

Cheap, ubiquitous tracking isn’t a feature, it’s a threat. How can you tell? Landlords and store owners never allow their own movements to be tracked in the same way.

James Dolan, the owner of Madison Square Garden and Radio City, whose facial recognition barred that mother from the Rockettes, shows publicly what can often go unseen. When facial recognition and other forms of biometric tracking go unchecked, the rich and powerful can use it however they see fit. They can settle grudges, target rivals, and silence critics.

What’s unusual about Mr. Dolan isn’t that he abused the technology at his fingertips, but that he was so open about it. Imagine a city where anytime you post something negative on social media about a company you risk being barred from their premises for life. That sort of corporate tyranny isn’t possible without the cheap, ubiquitous tracking enabled by facial recognition.

But as important as the pending City Council legislation may be, as crucial as it is to safeguard New Yorkers from this tracking at home and in public accommodations, there still is a vital piece missing: The NYPD.

Police use of facial recognition grew rapidly in recent years, with tens of thousands of New Yorkers scanned by the technology. Even as the tech is proven to be biased against Black, Latino, and Asian New Yorkers, and after a string of high-profile facial-recognition-fueled false arrests across the country, the NYPD has made no effort to address its dangerous use of this error-prone technology.

Just as with stores and landlords’ facial recognition, we’ve called for years for a ban on police use of the technology, only to be stalled by City Council bureaucracy. As we finally take these crucial, belated steps to address the technological tracking trauma inflicted on New Yorkers every day, we must also finally bring forward legislation to ban New York City’s own abuse of the technology. Only then will we truly be able to safeguard our city from the dystopian future these technologies threaten.

Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a New York-based civil rights and privacy group, a TED fellow, a Technology and Human Rights Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center, and a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. On Twitter @FoxCahn & @StopSpyingNY.

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