Today brings some small relief for New Yorkers worried about the face-scanning tech being used at the city’s entry points: So far, the system has reportedly been a total bust, detecting 0 percent of faces “within acceptable parameters.” But that isn’t stopping the city from expanding the pilot program.
In October 2016, you may remember, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a new initiative to scan and identify the faces of people leaving and entering New York City with facial recognition cameras. He buried the announcement in a speech about a $100 billion infrastructure investment. Cuomo spoke of the system again at a ceremony last July, saying it could “see the face of the person in the car and run that technology against databases.”
Well, apparently it can’t. At least for now.
The system was tested last year on the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge—which connects Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx—but the test was reportedly a dud. The Wall Street Journal reviewed an email that a Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) official wrote to a Cuomo administration senior official on November 29 about the program. The MTA official reportedly wrote that the initial proof-of-concept testing at the bridge “has been completed and failed with no faces (0%) being detected within acceptable parameters.”
But that initial failure hasn’t ended the program. The email from the MTA official reportedly said the program was being expanded, more cameras were being purchased for it, and a second hard drive of images of drivers would be analyzed.
“We are testing the technology, and all others that will help us keep New Yorkers safe, while protecting their civil liberties,” a Cuomo administration official told Gizmodo. “The governor’s number one priority is the safety and security of New Yorkers.”
An MTA spokesperson told the Journal that the face recognition program at the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, as well as the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges were still in progress. “Only a small handful of bridge and tunnel employees have access to the data and nothing whatsoever is being shared with law enforcement or anyone outside of the people involved with the pilot,” MTA spokesperson Maxwell Young told Gizmodo. “We take both public safety and civil liberties extremely seriously.”
Civil liberties advocates have raised concerns about the program since the system was first announced. “This latest news validates our concerns that this technology is invasive and inaccurate—and the government has no justification for using it to undermine the privacy of our daily commutes,” Daniel Schwarz, privacy and technology strategist at the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Gizmodo. “Facial recognition technology vastly expands the government’s capacity for intrusive, real-time surveillance.”
For now it seems the MTA and New York State have no intention to slow down their development of a facial recognition real-time surveillance system. But you don’t need to start driving with a mask just yet.