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Civil rights groups want facial recognition technology banned in New York State

Objections grounded in claims of discriminatory bias in face biometrics systems
Civil rights groups want facial recognition technology banned in New York State

A group of major civil rights organizations in New York is pushing for a statewide ban on the use of facial recognition and other biometric technologies by law enforcement, residential buildings, public accommodations and schools. A release from the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), which is leading the public advocacy campaign, says the “Ban The Scan” coalition demands the passage of four bills to enact a total ban on facial recognition across New York State.

“Whether we’re going to the grocery store, learning at school, or entering our homes, facial recognition does not keep New Yorkers safe,” says S.T.O.P. Research & Advocacy Manager Corinne Worthington. “This racist technology also has no place in policing, because time and time again, we have seen how it disproportionately impacts communities of color, especially Black New Yorkers.”

The campaign’s website argues that “facial recognition is biased and broken” in that it “discriminates against BIPOC, Muslim, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities, putting New Yorkers at risk of wrongful arrest and even police violence.” It singles out use of FRT by the NYPD, and names James Dolan’s infamous Madison Square Gardens deployment to detect hostile lawyers as evidence of a creep into private enterprise. “If we Ban the Scan,” says the site, “we will help protect millions of New Yorkers from the harms of biometric surveillance.”

Amid surge in FRT deployments, lawyers push Biometric Privacy Act

The concerns fueling the Ban the Scan campaign are not baseless. Facial recognition technology has already tried to plant roots in a few different sectors. In New York alone, back-and-forths over the ethical, legal and practical aspects of facial recognition have erupted in the grocery and retail sector, the school system and the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, transit officials are planning to deploy facial recognition on public trains and buses in response to a spike in violent crime.

As their own response to the increased use of facial recognition in New York (and to Dolan’s sleight), a working group of the New York State Bar Association issued a formal recommendation that its members endorse State Senate Bill 4459/Assembly Bill 1362. Otherwise known as the Biometric Privacy Act, the law would enable customers to sue private organizations that collect their biometric data without express written consent. Specifically, the Act “requires private entities in possession of biometric identifiers or biometric information to develop a written policy establishing a retention schedule and guidelines for permanently destroying biometric identifiers and biometric information when the initial purpose for collecting or obtaining such identifiers or information has been satisfied or within three years of the individual’s last interaction with the private entity, whichever occurs first.”

Outabox breach shows vulnerability of biometric databases

In addition to concerns about privacy rights and mass surveillance in the deployment of facial recognition systems, there is also the emerging problem of leaky databases. S.T.O.P. points to the recent “massive data hack” of Outabox, a facial recognition firm used for age verification at bars, clubs and casinos. That breach exposed the data of about a million Australians, when hackers claiming to be former developers for Outabox put up a website hosting the face biometrics, identity document scans, signatures, and other sensitive personal information of Outabox users. Although the data came only from Australian venues, Outabox is also based in the Philippines and the U.S.

In a release, S.T.O.P Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn says it is “time to face up to just how insecure facial recognition is.”

“It’s bad enough to see facial recognition used by police and landlords,” says Cahn. “But it’s absurd to see lawmakers promoting the use of facial recognition for age verification. We already know how to card kids for a six pack, we don’t need to put the public’s biometric data at risk this way to do it.”

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