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Proposed bill would ban police from using facial recognition technology

A live demonstration uses artificial intelligence and facial

A live demonstration uses artificial intelligence and facial recognition at the Horizon Robotics exhibit in January 2019 during CES 2019 in Las Vegas. Credit: AFP / David McNew via Getty Images

ALBANY — A state senator is calling on New York to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police agencies, following reports that its use is much more widespread than previously known.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) said recent news reports reveal companies have been “scraping” Facebook, YouTube and other online and public sources to compile a database of images most people aren’t aware of.

The companies, notably the controversial Clearview AI — which claims to have processed 3 billion images — then pitch the information to police agencies around the nation. The Suffolk County Police Department is one of its customers.

“Facial recognition technology threatens to end every New Yorker’s ability to walk down the street anonymously,” Holyman said. “In the wrong hands, this technology presents a chilling threat to our privacy and civil liberties — especially when evidence shows this technology is less accurate when used on people of color, and transgender, nonbinary and nonconforming people. New York must take action to regulate this increasingly pervasive and dangerously powerful technology, before it’s too late.”

How facial recognition technology works

1 1 Step 1: Image capture

An image of a person's face is captured from video, such as surveillance footage, or from a digital photo.

2 2 Step 2: Extract facial data

Measurements, such as the distance between the eyes, the width of the mouth and length of the nose, are plotted and are among the unique facial data that is extracted from the image.

3 3 Step 3: Compare to database

The extracted data is then compared with a database of known faces.

4 4 Step 4: Finding a match

Software determines whether the sample matches any of the faces in the database using an algorithm and if it does, provides an identification. Faces can become name tags.

Click on each number to learn how facial recognition technology works. NEWSDAY PHOTO ILLUSTRATION / JESSICA ASBURY; GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

An attorney for Clearview AI called the proposed bill too broad and said the company's software has helped police solve crimes, and the move to ban the technology amounts to a "rush to condemn these harms that haven't happened." 

Hoylman’s legislation echoes other proposals in Albany aiming to reign in surveillance and strengthen privacy protections.

A bill by Assemb. Monica Wallace (D-Lancaster) would ban schools from using facial recognition technology. Other proposals include prohibiting its use in apartment buildings as a way to replace keys.

Another bill, from State Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown), would force all companies that collect personal data to first obtain “express and documented consent” from consumers before using, selling or sharing their data.

At issue with Hoylman’s bill is the reported growing use of facial recognition technology by police. A number of municipalities have banned its use and other states are considering prohibitions as well.

Defense attorneys and civil liberties groups warn about the “Big Brother” surveillance aspect, while contending the technology can be inaccurate and misused for nonpolicing purposes.

“Biometric recognition systems like face surveillance are unethical and wildly inaccurate, and they have no place in the hands of law enforcement,” Michael Sisitzky, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “There’s overwhelming research showing facial recognition’s inability to accurately identify women, young people and people of color. And when these tools are used by law enforcement, the consequences can be devastating.”

Clearview AI has said it supplies the technology to more than 600 law-enforcement agencies around the country, including Chicago. The New York Police Department reportedly used Clearview on a trial basis, then declined to sign up — although a New York Post report said some individual police officers are still using it.

Nassau County police aren't using Clearview AI, a department spokesman said. Their Suffolk counterparts are.

“The Suffolk County Police Department is using the services of Clearview AI on a trial basis as part of a pilot program," Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in a statement. "The department has implemented strict guidelines for the usage of facial recognition during investigative searches to ensure best practices are followed.”

Clearview’s database of images far exceeds any compiled by any U.S. government agency, The New York Times reported.

Hoylman announced his proposal days after the Times and Post reports.

A NYPD spokeswoman said the agency has no “institutional relationship” with Clearview, despite the company’s claims that it recently assisted in an arrest involving a bomb scare.

NYPD Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said the technology is an important tool for solving crimes. He said officers will use video from around a crime scene and compare it to our “legally obtained arrest photo database.”

“If we lost that, that would be a significant blow to how we fight crime in New York City,” he said last week at the New York City Police Foundation’s annual breakfast in Manhattan.

“People are worried that you are going to have cameras on the corner and scanning crowds that go by. That is not how we use facial recognition,” Shea said.

In a post on its website, Clearview said it uses publicly available web pages, not private data. It said its computer application services are restricted to law-enforcement agencies and not available to the public.

“Nonetheless, we recognize that powerful tools always have the potential to be abused, regardless of who is using them, and we take the threat very seriously,” the statement said.

“Moreover, Clearview’s user code of conduct mandates that investigators use our technology in a safe and ethical manner, and for legitimate law enforcement and security purposes only,” the company continued. “They are required to obtain permission from a supervisor at their organizations before creating their Clearview accounts, and may only use the app for purposes authorized by their supervisors.”

Tor Ekeland, an attorney representing Clearview, said the company's software shouldn't be considered surveillance in comparison to Facebook, Google and other companies that track a person's location, buying preferences and other details. 

"Facial recognition technology is all over society. What Clearview is, is just the best version of it," Ekeland said. "It's certainly not surveillance software. It just identifies people in photos."

He said the company isn't opposed to regulation but Hoylman's bill is too broad.

"There's a debate to be had about facial recognition. It should be regulated in a reasonable manner," Ekeland said. But as far as banning it, he added: "The technology is out there already. The horse has left the barn."

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