Amid rising privacy concerns by tenants and civil liberties experts, the New York City Council is considering a package of legislation that would regulate the use of facial recognition technology by both business owners and landlords.
One of the bills, sponsored by Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander, would require landlords to provide mechanical or physical keys to residents for both the exterior entrances as well as those to individual apartments.
“We want to find a way to make it that New Yorkers can get and out of their homes without giving up their privacy,” Lander told Gothamist. The bill, which is yet to be introduced, was scheduled to be discussed on Monday by the council's committee on technology.
Following opposition earlier this year from a group of rent-stabilized tenants in Brooklyn to their landlord's plan to install facial recognition technology, the backlash to biometric data collection systems has been steadily growing in New York City. In May, more than 100 residents at Atlantic Plaza Towers in Brownsville filed a legal objection to the plan with the state, which is required to approve the installation of such systems in most rent-regulated complexes. Among the host of concerns their lawyers expressed was the potential for the entry system to be used as a tracking tool and its proven unreliability in recognizing people of color.
The use of facial recognition in apartment complexes is not a new phenomenon in New York City. Landlords have justified its application for reasons ranging from security to illegal subletting . Last month, Gothamist reported that Knickerbocker Plaza, a 1,600-unit affordable housing complex in the Lower East Side, has been using facial recognition as the sole means of access for roughly six years, without any apparent scrutiny from the state.
But the issue involving the Brooklyn complex this year prompted legislation at both the state and federal level. State Senator Brad Hoylman and State Assembly Member Latrice Walker have introduced a state bill that would ban the use of facial recognition technology. In Congress, U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke has sought to ban the use of biometric technology in all rental complexes that receive federal funding, such as the public housing.
On Monday, Legal Services, who is representing the Brooklyn tenants, applauded Lander's bill but said more regulation was needed to protect residents.
“We are glad our City Council is paying attention to the use of facial recognition entry systems in residential spaces, but tenants need additional protections from the many risks involved in biometrics data collection,” said Samar Katnani, an attorney in Legal Services NYC's Tenant Rights Coalition, in a press release statement. “The tenants we work with are calling for a ban on facial recognition technology in residential spaces. There is no reason NYC tenants should have to give landlords their biometric data in order to obtain or maintain a home."
Although the City Council bill would not prevent landlords from using facial recognition, it would allow tenants to opt out. Lander said he would be favor of an outright ban on facial recognition in residences, and that this was an important first step in a broader movement to curb biometric technology.
In addition to Lander’s bill, the City Council’s committee on technology was also scheduled to discuss two other pieces of legislation related to biometric technology. Last year, Bronx Council Member Ritchie Torres introduced a bill requiring businesses to notify customers if they are collecting biometric data, such as facial and iris scans or fingerprints. The bill was prompted by a March 2018 report by the New York Times that found that Madison Square Garden had quietly installed facial recognition to identify those entering its arena.
And late this summer, Queens Council Member Donovan Richards proposed a plan to require property owners to register their use of biometric technology with the city.
New York City joins other cities that have increasingly sought to rein in the use of cyber surveillance systems. In May, San Francisco became the first major American city to ban the use of facial recognition by public agencies, including the police. With the latter, the measure was pre-emptive as the San Francisco police does not currently use the tool.
In contrast, the New York Police Department has acknowledged using facial recognition going back to 2011. Back in 2017, then City Council Member Daniel Garodnick introduced a bill calling for more transparency on the way the NYPD uses surveillance technology. But top police officials criticized the proposal, saying it would dangerously expose the department's anti-terrorism efforts.
"In a final analysis, all that this legislation does is provide an invaluable roadmap to criminals, terrorists, and others for how to harm the public," said Deputy Commissioner of Counterterrorism and Intelligence John Miller at the time.