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Privacy concerns raised over facial recognition technology in New York City


A recent New York Daily News opinion-editorial article by Clare Garvie and Alvaro Bedoya of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law drew attention to privacy concerns regarding Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plans to acquire facial recognition technology to scan the 800,000 drivers that commute daily at the nine bridges and tunnels connecting the city’s boroughs.

First announced last October, New York City’s MTA is currently in the early stages of acquiring face recognition technology.

Residents of New York City have been subjected to facial recognition scanning for some time. The New York Police Department has been quietly using the technology to investigate crimes since 2011.

According to a former NYPD official who helped set up the facial recognition unit, the division has conducted “more than 8,500 facial recognition investigations, with over 3,000 possible matches, and approximately 2,000 arrests” as of last year.

Meanwhile, body-worn cameras are expected to be issued to all uniformed officers in the near future. The technology captures a photo or video of an unknown face and compares it to a database containing mugshots, driver’s license photos and a watchlist of wanted individuals, then provides a list of potential matches.

The authors argue that New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo should not impose real-time face scanning on New York residents unless the state first implements the necessary regulations to “safeguard privacy and civil liberties”.

Currently, there are no regulations in place which poses significant “threats to the privacy, civil rights and civil liberties of millions of innocent New Yorkers,” the article states.

The article highlights several issues regarding the NYPD’s use of face recognition technology, including its inaccuracy (making more mistakes than other forms of biometric identification), its apparent racial bias (misidentifiying African Americans more than people of other races), and most notable, implementing the technology largely in secret.

The department has declined to provide information about the facial recognition system in response to requests filed under New York’s Freedom of Information law, according to the report.

The agency has offered a series of reasons for this, such as claims that the records were exempt from disclosure, that they were “unable to locate” the documents requested, and that the documents are exempt from disclosure because they discuss trade secrets or confidential police procedures.

Finally, the article emphasizes how face recognition is “too powerful to be secret” as it “raises too many concerns to operate without transparency into how it is being deployed and what controls have been placed on its use.”

“Communities have a right to know how they are being policed, particularly when the technology used is as invasive — and error-prone — as face recognition,” the article states.

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