New York commercial landlord talks facial recognition deployment across entire portfolio

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Some five years ago, real estate investment trust Vornado Realty Trust rolled out facial biometric systems in its buildings across New York City. The technology has so far been installed in 11 buildings, but the company plans to soon have it installed in all its buildings for contactless access, the company told Business Insider in an interview.

New York’s largest commercial landlord says tenant consent will be required, but there is also an opt out option. With controversy still swirling over the biometric technology, company executives have sat down with Business Insider to explain how they are using it and why contactless technology is an important feature in their building modernization process.

Obviously, the driving force is the coronavirus pandemic, which has made tenants more aware of germs in public spaces, but according to Vice Chairman David Greenbaum, the goal is to assure people that they can safely return to work. “We are constantly looking to adopt new, cutting-edge technologies that will make our buildings more efficient and life more convenient for our tenants,” Greenbaum told Business Insider.

The facial recognition talk goes back some six years, after he noticed tenants were carrying two entry cards. Following a conversation with CEO Steve Roth, the senior leaders started looking into facial recognition to replace access cards. Until 2020, facial recognition had been available in five buildings, and since COVID-19 the company has installed the technology in seven other buildings, systems which are now in working order.

Looking ahead, the company’s goal is to equip its entire real estate portfolio with facial recognition, but it has not yet decided on a specific implementation timeline. Some of the buildings where facial recognition is in use include the Amazon office tower. So far, the overall tenant participation rate is nearly 40 percent.

“Virtually everyone who has used the technology has liked it,” Greenbaum said. “I never had a preconceived notion of what the adoption rate would be, but as our tenants see others using it, they are becoming increasingly comfortable with the technology.”

According to the company’s chief operating officer for the area, Gaston Silva, the biometric data and photos are kept anonymously in onsite systems. “Every face is assigned a number that is disassociated from someone’s identity,” Silva said. “The information is encrypted and stored on systems that cannot be accessed from the internet.”

The controversy around the use of facial recognition, especially in China where it is used for massive surveillance, has discouraged both companies and users from accepting it into their lives, in some cases. According to Craig Deitelzweig, CEO of Marx Realty, his tenants find it “creepy” and would not be comfortable with it being deployed to their properties.

Vornado says it has partnered with third parties to install the systems, but has not shared any names. Per website information, it is working with GMSC, a security company it owns, to manage “biometric facial recognition installation and enrollment assistance.” GMSC is also collaborating with Vornado tenants Amazon, Facebook and Bloomberg.

“In fact, facial recognition is easier than using your phone,” Greenbaum said. “If you are on a call when you enter the building, you likely would prefer not to move the phone from your ear in order to bring it closer to the turnstile.”

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