In a New York City Council hearing Monday morning, council members listened to tenants voice their concerns over the increased use of facial recognition technology and biometric data collection in public housing complexes.

Facial recognition technology has fallen under scrutiny for failing to correctly identify women and people of color, with up to 35% error rates for identifying women of color. Just last week, The New York Daily News reported that Google temps were instructed to seek out homeless black people and offer them $5 gift cards in return for face scans that could improve the companies’ facial recognition databases.

Legislation considered in the NYC hearing would require real property owners to submit registration statements when using biometric tech on their premises, require businesses to notify customers if they are collecting biometric information and require building owners to provide mechanical keys and prohibit them from forcing tenants to use keyless entry methods. The bills are designed to promote transparency and honesty in private sector transactions.

“We certainly do not want to stand in the way of technological advancements, but we do want to ensure that consumers are fully aware of how their information is being gathered and used,” explained Councilman Espinal.

But many tenants and advocates considered these measures inadequate, and advocated for a categorical ban on facial recognition technology in public housing complexes. They argued that facial recognition technology is inaccurate and biased, and that its use poses a threat to individual privacy.

“Let me be clear, we are far beyond anything George Orwell could ever imagine,” said Albert Cahn, head of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center. “[Facial recognition] cannot be a part of [society] yet, not when it continues to discriminate at this level, and not when it continues to get it wrong time and time again.”

In Brooklyn, a landlord at Brownsville’s Atlantic Plaza Towers attempted to install a facial recognition system to replace traditional keys or key fobs, leading a group of tenants to file a complaint to the Homes and Community Renewal agency earlier this year arguing that the system violated the tenants’ privacy and civil rights.

“I kind of feel like a criminal even though I pay my rent just like the next person,” said Fabian Rogers, an Atlantic Towers tenant. “Residents who are of rent-stabilized apartments and building complexes, they feel like they’re at risk because they have to deal with landlords imposing this technology on them.”

Facial recognition technology has been in use at Knickerbocker Village, an affordable-housing complex in the Bronx, for more than six years. Tenants there complain that the technology often doesn’t work, requiring guards to buzz tenants in manually, and that the technology has matched guests whose faces aren’t even in the database to the faces of tenants.

“It just feels like they’re tracking our every movement,” said Christina Zhang, co-chair of the Knickerbocker Village tenant association. “How necessary is that information if it doesn’t really provide security or safety?”

Many tenants feel that landlords are using surveillance technology to attempt to speed up gentrification and evict their current tenants, who are, in Knickerbocker Village and Atlantic Towers, primarily people of color.

“You’re getting all of the risks and harms, none of the information and none even of the purported benefits,” said Councilman Lander.

San Francisco, Somerville and Oakland have banned the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and government agencies. New York has yet to pass any comprehensive legislation regulating biometric data.

WHAT THE LEFT IS SAYING: NYC Councilman Rafael L Espinal Jr.: “Co-chairing a hearing today about facial recognition technology, an unregulated tool that can restrict consumers and tenants of their rights to privacy. One of my bills will require stores to inform consumers when they are recording them.”

WHAT THE RIGHT IS SAYING: Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan: “We know what the IRS did to conservatives. We know what the FBI did to the Trump campaign. Now we learn about the government’s ability to use facial recognition tech and access drivers license databases in 21 states. This should concern every American.”

Written ByGrace Symes

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