Facial recognition is everywhere. Here's what to know

Dan Krauth Image
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Facial recognition cams: You're being watched and recorded
Tens of thousands of video cameras are embedded throughout New York City, and some of those cameras can be used for facial recognition.

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- You're being watched, and you probably don't even know it.

Tens of thousands of video cameras are embedded throughout New York City, and some of those cameras can be used for facial recognition.

That's where your face can be cross referenced with thousands of others for a possible match to help determine who you are and where you've been.

Private companies use the technology to track shoppers. Police use it to track down criminals.

There's a new law requiring the disclosure of facial recognition technology when it comes to private companies but some lawmakers and critics say it doesn't go far enough.

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A new city law went into effect late this summer, requiring private companies to notify customers with a sign by the front doors if they're collecting your biometric information.

That can be anything from a fingerprint to the way you walk, to facial recognition. It also bans companies from sharing or selling that information.

However, it does not apply to government agencies like the police.

"It's putting New Yorkers at risk every single day of false arrests," said Albert Fox Cahn who founded the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project or STOP. "It's not just some type of privacy issue, that match could be the reason why someone is pulled over at the side of the road."

Critics say the technology is less accurate when it comes to identifying young and older people, and people of color.

"It is worse at identifying Black and brown faces than someone like me," Cahn said. "The NYPD has used it tens of thousands of times but they refuse to give us any information on how their system works."

Some state lawmakers are trying to take the new city law one step further.

They've written a proposed law that would ban the technology altogether in New York and create a task force on how to use it safely.

"We don't want to head toward being a 24/7 police state," Senator Brad Hoylman said. "There are many accuracy concerns."

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The NYPD said it doesn't scan faces in real-time. When there's a crime caught on camera, they use a still image from surveillance video and run that image through a database of people who have been previously arrested.

For example, it helped the department make a match on who stole a boy's scooter in Brooklyn this summer, to those who pulled off a $4 million jewelry heist in New York City.

"Then that detective has to do good ole fashioned detective work," said Oleg Chernvavsky, Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters for the NYPD.

He said no arrest is ever made on facial recognition alone. There are at least two layers of review a photo goes through after a possible match is found.

Out of all of the requests they receive for facial recognition, the department finds matches in about 25% of cases.

"We owe it to crime victims to use everything possible to catch their assailants," Chernvavsky said.

Also, the NYPD says its facial recognition policy has been in place for a decade and it's publicly posted on its website.


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