NY City Council Considers New Rules for Facial Recognition

A package of bills would outline a number of rules for businesses and property owners when the technology was being used in a private setting. A number of issues related to privacy and accuracy have been raised.

by Shant Shahrigian, New York Daily News / October 8, 2019
Shutterstock/pixinoo

(TNS) — The City Council is trying to push back against Big Brother amid growing privacy concerns over facial recognition tech.

Councilman Rafael Espinal (D-Brooklyn) on Monday cited a recent Daily News exposé of Google’s dubious data collection practices, saying, “While this technology has the potential to be utilized in a number of positive ways, there are several valid concerns that need to be addressed.

“We have also heard the companies developing this kind of software sometimes resort to shady or deceitful tactics to expand their databases or improve their product,” he continued, citing a News investigation that found Google was hiring contractors to trick homeless people in Atlanta, among others, into giving up their biometric data.

A package of bills would require businesses to notify customers when they’re being subjected to facial recognition technology; force property owners to register with the city when they use biometric scanning tech; and require landlords to give tenants regular keys even if they’re also using cutting-edge keyless entrances.

Right now, the city isn’t doing anything to track businesses’ and landlords’ use of potentially invasive tech, said reps from the departments of Consumer and Worker Protection, of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) and of Housing Preservation and Development.

“We really have to get to the bottom of what agencies are actually using in the city of New York. What are they doing?” said Councilman Bob Holden (D-Queens), chair of the Technology Committee. “If we don’t know that, we’re in ‘1984.’”

Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Queens), said of facial recognition tech, “I am not sold on the idea that this technology should become an everyday reality for all New Yorkers.”

Testimony came from residents of several buildings where, they say, landlords’ efforts to replace keys with cameras and facial recognition software has gone awry.

“The technology frequently does not work,” said Christina Zhang, who lives at the Knickerbocker Village affordable housing complex, where the population is 70% Asian, on the Lower East Side.

Noting recent studies finding facial recognition technology is biased against women and people of color, she recounted an instance in which a tenant’s cousin was able to enter a Village building after the surveillance system apparently mistook the cousin for the resident.

“I am also personally worried about how the data is being used and stored,” Zhang said.

Cherry Green Property Corp., which runs Knickerbocker Village, could not immediately be reached for comment.

A bill from Councilmen Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) and Richards would require DOITT to set up a database in which landlords would register facial recognition tech.

DOITT spokeswoman Robin Levine pushed back Monday, saying, “We are not the appropriate entity to do so,” explaining that the department’s purpose is to help other agencies with their tech.

Next week, Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), is scheduled to introduce a bill requiring landlords to provide all tenants with good ol’ fashioned keys even if their building also has tech like Knickerbocker Village’s.

“No one should be required to have their movements tracked just to enter their own home,” he said.

A spokesman for Council Speaker Corey Johnson said he’s monitoring the bills but didn’t affirm support of them at this stage.

The trio of bills doesn’t go nearly far enough, said Albert Fox Cahn, head of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project from the Urban Justice Center.

He called for a ban on facial recognition tech in public and private spaces, mentioning a 2018 M.I.T. Media Lab study that found facial recognition tech fails about one out of every three times to correctly identify darker-skinned women.

Cahn said, “When you have that sort of performance scan, you are baking in the sort of bias and discrimination we’ve seen for so many decades in New York decision makers — automating it and making it more obscure and harder for people to challenge.”

He also called for the City Council to take up stalled legislation, known as the POST Act, to boost oversight of the NYPD’s use of surveillance tech.

“We are far beyond anything George Orwell ever would have imagined,” he said.

©2019 New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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