NYC's Transportation Authority Says It's Doesn't Use Facial Recognition Tech; Activists Say 'Prove It' With Public Records Lawsuit

from the as-evidence-of-our-claim,-we-are-withholding-all-documents dept

Like pretty much everyone else, New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is using facial recognition software. Like pretty much everyone else, it doesn't really have any success stories to share.

According to the [MTA] email, the “initial period for the proof of concept testing at the (Robert F. Kennedy Bridge connecting Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens) for facial recognition has been completed and failed with no faces (0%) being detected within acceptable parameters.”

Besides the RFK Bridge, the MTA is testing the technology at the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges, as well as at the Midtown and Hugh L. Carey tunnels.

Unceremoniously ushered to the exit by its failure to recognize faces, the pilot program was shelved until tech catches up to the MTA's surveillance desires.

But does that mean the MTA isn't utilizing the tech elsewhere? That's what New Yorkers wanted to know earlier this year, when a Twitter user noticed the little yellow squares being placed around commuters' faces as they went through the turnstiles.

In a statement given to The Verge, the MTA denied these squares signified anything.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority has denied suggestions that it’s putting facial recognition cameras in the subway, saying that a trick designed to scare fare-dodgers was misinterpreted. “There is no capability to recognize or identify individuals and absolutely no plan” to do so with NYC subway cameras, says MTA spokesperson Maxwell Young.

It scared more than fare-dodgers. Lots of people who never dodged a fare were possibly being recorded and routed through unproven facial recognition tech. The words from MTA were reassuring but they were only words. And they came from MTA, which had already field-testing facial recognition tech elsewhere.

Beyond that, the monitors used by MTA bore the name of Wisenet, a company that is very proud of its facial recognition tech. Just saying you don't have the capability now doesn't mean you can't silently add it later without having to replace any hardware.

Since MTA has only been straightforward about its facial recognition tech use after being caught using it, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) sent a FOIL request to MTA asking for copies of any of its facial recognition tech documents. So far, MTA has refused to release anything to STOP about its Wisenet hardware and its capabilities.

It forwarded the request to New York City Transit, which has now spent nearly eight months not responding. STOP has now sued, hoping to force NYCT into action. The lawsuit [PDF] asks the court to compel production of these documents ASAP as well as make the government agencies pay STOP's expenses for having to litigate this in the first place.

If the MTA really wants to reassure New Yorkers about its facial recognition plans, it needs to release documents backing up its public statements. If it prefers commuters to continue to not trust it, it can keep doing what it's doing: stonewalling public records requests from privacy activists.

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Filed Under: facial recognition, mta, nyc


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Jan 2020 @ 9:51am

    Might as well hang a neon sign...

    If you're going to claim you aren't doing something(again), get called on it and be asked to provide evidence, refusing to respond is only just shy of admitting that you lied the first time around.

    Shy of hosting a press conference that is publicly sponsored by the company selling them the tech I struggle to think of a better way to confirm that even if they aren't using the cameras for facial recognition now they most certainly are planning something along those lines in the future than what they're doing here, and hopefully the judges sees it the same.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Michael, 10 Jan 2020 @ 10:08am

    I think it is true

    “There is no capability to recognize or identify individuals and absolutely no plan”

    Well, clearly since their other attempt yielded 0 success, I think the "no capability" part is probably accurate.

    And it really is difficult to fathom the MTA having any sort of an actual plan for anything.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 10 Jan 2020 @ 12:13pm

    Failed experiment leaves cameras up.

    After a big failure.
    Why not leave them up and show pictures of the crowds..
    Let them make funny faces and so forth, have fun.

    Eventually, those cameras start doing the same job again, with improved Software. Then again and again..
    And no one is the wiser.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jan 2020 @ 12:49pm

    Good luck in succeeding with that!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jan 2020 @ 1:33pm

    Well, you know they cannot respond, due to an NDA signed with a private entity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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