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After MSG debacle, NYC considers facial recognition ban for businesses, landlords

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New York’s City Council will introduce a pair of bills on Wednesday afternoon aimed at curbing the use of facial recognition and other types of biometric surveillance by private businesses and landlords.

The first bill would ban businesses from using facial scans or other biometric technology to identify customers — as Madison Square Garden CEO James Dolan famously did earlier this year in order to boot adversarial attorneys from events held at MSG and other venues run by his holding company.

The second bill prohibits residential landlords from using the same sort of biometric identification of tenants and guests. Residents have pushed back against landlords’ attempts to install biometric tools — like fingerprint entry systems — in the past, citing privacy as well as concerns about the systems’ reported difficulty identifying people with darker skin tones.

“As someone who grew up as a young Muslim in post-9/11 New York, I am all too familiar with this city’s overreliance on surveillance technology to harass communities of color,” Councilmember Shahana Hanif, the sponsor of the first bill, said in a written statement. “It’s time our Council takes action to protect our communities from the constant overreaches of the expansive surveillance state.”

Any other types of biometric data collection — like smart-access buildings that grant entry based on a facial scan — would require explicit consent from tenants or customers, according to the proposals. Business owners would also be banned from selling any biometric data they collect to third parties, and they’d have to take special precautions to keep it secure from hackers.

At Wednesday’s hearing, members of the Council’s technology and civil rights committees will also question representatives from the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation on governmental use of biometric surveillance, which can identify people based on characteristics like voice, facial features and fingerprints. The goal is to better understand and hopefully regulate the city’s use of the controversial technology, said Councilmember Jennifer Gutiérrez, who chairs the technology committee.

“We’re coming into this hearing with a crap ton of reservations,” she said. “If the city has any intention of leaning on biometric tech, [we want to make sure] that we are a part of that plan, that we understand how it’s being rolled out, and everyday New Yorkers have a seat at the table of whether or not they even want this.”

People walk past an NYPD surveillance camera in Times Square, June 2, 2021. In 2019 alone, facial recognition software made more than 2,500 possible matches in criminal investigations.

Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Some city agencies are already leaning on facial recognition. The NYPD has used the tech since 2011. In 2019 alone, facial recognition software made more than 2,500 possible matches in criminal investigations, according to police data. In 2020, the police used facial recognition as they tracked down and raided the apartment of a Black Lives Matter protester who they say shouted in a police officer’s ear.

Wednesday’s hearing is hardly the first attempt by local lawmakers to restrict the use of facial recognition technology. City businesses already have to tell customers if they’re collecting information on their physical characteristics. A shopper at a New York City Amazon Go location sued parent company Amazon on those grounds earlier this year, alleging that it didn’t properly disclose its use of palm scanners and other biometric surveillance. State legislators have also tried to curb the use of facial recognition tech by landlords, government agencies and police.

Experts and opponents of surveillance praised the city’s proposals as a good start. Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said the reforms can’t come soon enough — particularly as surveillance tech becomes cheaper and more accessible.

“When we’re facing this kind of threat to our ability to walk the city unwatched, it really calls for action,” he said. STOP and other privacy groups will rally outside City Hall on Wednesday morning ahead of the hearing at 1 p.m.

Cahn called on the Council to also restrict the NYPD’s use of biometric surveillance.

“The NYPD continues to use this tech without any accountability and oversight,” he said. “It’s long past time to outlaw it.”

Nasir Memon, a computer science professor at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, noted that while biometrics can offer password-free security, they also come with special risks. Biometric data can’t be encrypted in the same way as passwords, he explained — and if that data is stolen, it’s gone for good.

“If my password gets leaked, I can change my password,” he said. “But if my biometric gets leaked, I can’t change my face.”

Memon also called for better training and testing of facial recognition models to tamp down on algorithmic bias, which could cause them to more frequently misidentify people of color.

Also on the docket for Wednesday’s meeting is a plan to create a task force on missing women and girls of color, based on data showing that this community is overrepresented among people who have gone missing in New York state and nationwide.

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