N.Y. Brownsville Tenants Push Back on Facial Recognition Plan

The plan to put biometric technology on Nelson Management Group apartment buildings sparked outcry from residents, who object to giving up personal information without the protection of government regulation.

by Sarina Trangle, amNewYork / May 2, 2019

(TNS) — Brownsville tenants who are opposing a bid to add a biometric security system to their buildings have filed paperwork with the state asking it to deny their landlord's request and rule the technology inappropriate for all rent-regulated buildings.

In a nearly 40-page memo submitted Wednesday to Homes and Community Renewal, the state agency overseeing rent regulations, attorneys representing 134 tenants at Atlantic Plaza Towers argued that adding the new facial recognition equipment would not enhance the existing security setup. Rather, they said, the tool would curtail residents' rights by deterring some from remaining in their homes and scaring off guests.

More broadly, tenants argue that the request to add facial recognition technology — the first to modify services in this way that the agency says it has considered — threatens to propel New York into an era where residents are compelled to give up irreplaceable personal information without the protection of government regulation. They are requesting that the state solicit testimony on the technology as part of its consideration process.

"To approve the installation of such a system, HCR will have to determine that it is consistent with the rent laws for the Owner to collect and record sensitive personal information from thousands of tenants, occupants, guests and employees, a stark departure from previous precedent," the filing by Brooklyn Legal Services' Tenant Rights Coalition, a program run by Legal Services NYC read. "Such a determination will need to be made against the backdrop of a barren landscape of regulation, where no laws or rules exist regarding the Owner's obligations in collecting, storing, and sharing the tenants' information."

Residents of the nearly 720-household development have collectively submitted about 350 responses opposing the applications, according to their attorneys. In the filing, tenants said there are no insufficiencies with the current system, which includes one unlocked door, a second requiring a key fob, a security guard station and a third door linked to a fob — in addition to dozens of cameras in the lobbies, elevators and hallways. Even with StoneLock, Nelson Management Group indicated key fobs will still be needed to access some parts of the complex.

Nelson Management Group says installing StoneLock fit would advance its priorities of including cutting edge technology, creating a safer environment and providing the highest-quality housing in the rent-stabilized market, according to its spokesman Chris Santarelli.

"We appreciate engagement from tenants on this matter and look forward to feedback from [HCR]," Santarelli said in a statement. "As always, we will comply with [HCR]’s recommendations and keep tenants updated on implementation should we move forward with this upgrade in security technology.”

In the paperwork, tenants note the landlord is asking HCR for permission to collect biometric data on guests and that the StoneLock system would take and store JPEG photos of every person who enters the towers, whether an authorized user or not.

"Unlike a compromised password or stolen credit card and bank information, a person's biometric identifier can never be replaced," the filing noted.

StoneLock's ability to collect JPEGs can be turned on or off, and the system can be configured to immediately purge any collected information, according to its CEO Colleen Dunlap. She noted all data are controlled by the customer, not StoneLock.

Still, the filing cites research indicating that facial recognition technology tends to be less accurate for people with darker skin and for women. About 90% of the development's residents are people of color and more than 80% are women, according to the paperwork.

Such systems should not be deployed in residential buildings without a regulatory framework that includes mandatory accuracy and bias testing and a process for informing the public about complications associated with the technology, the tenants argue.

New York does not have any such regulations, but Illinois, Texas and Washington have established related protocols, the document said.

HCR said in a statement that it had received the objections and that the application is under review. At the behest of tenants and their elected officials, HCR agreed to extend its review of the landlord's applications until May 13, according to the filing.

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