NYC Swears Its Face-Scanning Tech Is Fake and Only Meant to Scare People Out of Doing Crimes

Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty)

It’s a tale of two cities.

In San Francisco, the city government is on the verge of becoming the first American city to ban face recognition surveillance despite opposition from local cops. The movement to ban comes in reaction to years of mounting research that the technology disproportionately negatively impacts marginalized communities.

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In New York City, the subway system is putting up what is apparently a faux-face recognition monitor to scare potential lawbreakers into believing they’re being tracked.

Here’s the tweet from Thursday afternoon when Alice Fung, a governance analyst at the New York Times, spotted a monitor showing surveillance cameras tracking rider faces in the New York subway:

The Verge reports that MTA spokesperson Maxwell Young said on Friday that “there is no capability to recognize or identify individuals and absolutely no plan” to do so. The entire thing is a trick, he said, including the words like “recording in progress” bannered across the top and the WISENET, a real facial recognition surveillance company, planting a flag in the top left of the screen.

“These cameras are purely for the purpose of deterring fare evasion — if you see yourself on a monitor, you’re less likely to evade the fare,” he told The Verge.

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WISENET is a subsidiary of Hanwha Techwin, a South Korean surveillance tech company that has been offering consumer facial recognition surveillance cameras since 2018. WISENET did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, but one could imagine that the company’s execs would not be pleased if the MTA was using its brand without permission.

The MTA chose the face recognition surveillance scare tactic at a moment when the technology is being hotly debated both around the United States and the world.

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New York City’s ongoing experiments with face recognition have been a total technology failure so far, not to mention taking beatings from civil liberties groups like the ACLU. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo, however, is a face recognition cheerleader and has touted the state’s use of the technology in thousands of criminal cases.

Face recognition surveillance is a technology that’s turbocharging China’s tech-powered authoritarian state. China is using the technology to track Uighurs, the country’s heavily persecuted and surveilled Muslim minority, on an unprecedented scale.

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In the United States, tech giants like Amazon are leaders in the industry. Amazon shareholders are set to vote next month on a proposal to ban the sale of the technology to governments because of how the technology is misused and can impact dark-skinned and female individuals.

Real or not, using face recognition surveillance to track and shame isn’t a new idea.

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In the Chinese city of Xiangyang, police covered busy intersections with face recognition-enabled surveillance cameras and put anyone breaking the rules — speeding or jaywalking — up on a big screen with names and government ID numbers.

“If you are captured by the system and you don’t see it, your neighbors or colleagues will, and they will gossip about it,” Guan Yue, a city spokeswoman told the New York Times. “That’s too embarrassing for people to take.”

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China’s surveillance state is built on a foundation of artificial intelligence and embarrassment. Does New York see a role model?

[The Verge]

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About the author

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Reporter in Silicon Valley. Contact me: Email poneill@gizmodo.com, Signal +1-650-488-7247