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Bills to ban facial recognition spark lively debate in New York council

IBIA, SIA offer public testimony as biometric tools face broad restriction in NYC
Bills to ban facial recognition spark lively debate in New York council

New York City Council chambers hosted a policy donnybrook over facial recognition technology today, as members grilled representatives from the Office of Technology and Innovation (OTI) and heard public testimony on the pros and cons of biometric identification tools. Opinions over Int 0217-2024 and Int 0425-2024 vary from strident opposition to biometric identification in general to defenses of facial recognition as a valuable and effective tool, with context and specific use cases proving to be the hinge.

Among panelists to address the chamber were Jake Parker, senior director of government revelations for the Security Industry Association (SIA) and Robert Tappan, managing director of the International Biometrics and Identity Association (IBIA). Parker and Tappan offered somewhat beleaguered explanations of the parameters of biometric ID technologies and the difference between authentication and surveillance, and fielded questions about privacy and security safeguards for facial recognition tools.

While they were outnumbered by those who support the bills and spoke against facial recognition, the industry spokespeople presented a sound practical case for regulation over restriction.

“Facial recognition technology has become an integral tool for ensuring public safety, preventing and deterring crime, protecting citizens and visitors, and enhancing security and convenience across many sectors,” Tappan told the council. “Prudent regulation is required, not prohibition. In the private sector, facial recognition enhances physical security for offices, residential buildings and facilities. Retailers rely on it as part of their efforts to combat rampant shoplifting.”

Tappan noted how a ban on biometric identification tools could hurt small grocery businesses who face unsustainable losses from shoplifting and are forced to close their doors, creating food deserts. “We should be enabling businesses and communities to address this public safety, not tying their hands,” he said.

Parker noted the wide range of biometric use cases that already exist. “In all this, it’s critical these technologies are used in a secure manner, in ways that are lawful and not discriminatory.” Per a written statement from the SIA, “biometric technologies are embedded throughout common commercial applications and operational systems.” Parker expressed concern that the two ordinances under discussion “would simply outlaw most uses of biometric technologies, despite the fact that they were already regulated in cities’ existing biometric data privacy and tenant data privacy laws.” SIA believes the law is likely to catch many businesses unaware, and could drive ruinous waves of unfair litigation, similar to what it calls “devastation to businesses in Illinois stemming from the Illinois Biometric Data Protection Act (BIPA) litigation.”

The SIA’s written statement includes a section breaking down key “biometric myths,” including notes on accuracy, bias and data security. U.S. government data, it says, “shows that the leading biometric technologies used in products today are well over 99 percent accurate overall and more than 97.5 percent accurate across more than 70 different demographic variables.”

Int 0217-2024 “would make it unlawful for any place or provider of public accommodation to use biometric recognition technology to verify or identify a customer. It would also require places or providers of public accommodation to notify customers if biometric identifier information is collected and to require written consent before any biometric recognition technology could be used.”

Crucially, 0217 includes a private right of action, stating that “a person who is aggrieved by a violation of this chapter may commence an action in a court of competent jurisdiction on [his or her] such person’s own behalf against an offending party.” Written notice must be provided 30 days in advance. Each violation of a subdivision of section 22-1202 results in damages of $500. Each negligent violation of subdivision b or c of section 22-1202 incurs damages of $500; while every “intentional or reckless violation” of the same results in damages of $5,000.

Int 0425-2024 “would make it unlawful for an owner of a multiple dwelling to install, activate or use any biometric recognition technology that identifies tenants or the guest of a tenant.” It does not include a private right of action.

Both bills are revived versions of legislation introduced in past council sessions. They are accompanied by a third bill which would restrict the sharing of location data from mobile phones.

Facial recognition opponents cite mistaken matches, unlawful arrests

Those who testified in support of the two bills included advocacy groups Fight for the Future, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Major critiques centered on the potential for racial bias and discrimination in facial recognition systems, threats to an assumed right to privacy and the potential for abuse by police departments and other law enforcement agencies at the expense of people of color.

Council members who put forth questions noted the potential burden of expense for businesses that have already installed biometric systems and would be forced to remove and replace them. Concerns about rights ran both ways, with some wondering why co-ops should be banned from deploying facial recognition for security with consent from all of their members. There were advocates for a measured approach. It was often noted that the laws would still allow certain use cases with specific intent and limitations.

New York cyber agency has no answers to speak of

One thing most everyone present agreed on was the uselessness of local government in shedding light on anything whatsoever. The OTI kicked off the session by claiming no jurisdiction over the bills, then deferred or evaded the majority of specific questions from council members around the use of biometrics and facial recognition technology. “I’ll have to get back to you on the particulars of that” was a favorite reply. Jennifer Gutierrez, chair of the Committee on Technology, called the OTI’s statements in the chamber “unacceptable.”

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