Cities Examine Proper—and Improper—Uses of Facial Recognition

When longtime resident Christina Zhang tried to enter her apartment building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood Saturday afternoon, she found herself enacting an all-too-familiar routine. The door wouldn’t open, so she began “dancing” around the lobby, bobbing and weaving her body to and fro.Her audience? A smart camera pointed at the entrance gate that was supposed to recognize Zhang and open the door.Such is life now in Knickerbocker Village, the roughly 1,600-unit affordable housing complex that Zhang has called home for the last two decades, she says. Management installed a facial recognition system in each of its 12 building lobbies and outdoor courtyard entrances in 2013, making Knickerbocker Village one of the first large New York City residential complexes to do away with keys and other traditional means of access in favor of biometrics.

Zhang says her face has been scanned and logged by the system. Still, she often finds herself locked out of her own building because it can’t identify her. She says it’s a common complaint at tenants’ association meetings, and that residents regularly have to wait for someone else to enter or leave the building to gain access to the lobby.

Tenants report numerous issues with the technology: Sometimes, it confuses Asian non-residents with tenants of the same ethnicity, granting strangers access to the building; some outdoor entrances don’t work well in harsh sunlight and at night due to the sensitivity of the camera lenses; and malfunctions have become so common that the complex’s security guards will buzz practically anyone in, which makes tenants nervous, Zhang says.
The Knickerbocker Village residents are on the leading edge of a social experiment around facial recognition. The technology is used at other apartment buildings—often low-cost or rent-regulated complexes—across New York City, housing thousands of residents. Summer camps in more than 40 states use facial recognition to send parents photos of their children. The technology has also been deployed by airlines, restaurants, and major retailers like Target, Walmart, and Lowe’s.

Now, communities around the nation are beginning to grapple with how the nascent technology should be used, and by whom.

Facial recognition is largely unregulated in the US. There are no federal rules governing its use. Some municipalities—such as San Francisco and Oakland, California; and Somerville, Massachusetts —have instituted bans on facial recognition, but they only apply to government agencies. People unaffiliated with the city can still deploy the technology in residences, commercial spaces, and on private property.

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A handful of states have laws requiring that companies obtain consent from or notify anyone from whom they collect biometric data, but they don’t actually limit the practice either. The lax regulatory environment means the onus has largely been on consumers to advocate for limitations in the private sector.

In September, news that Ticketmaster could replace concert tickets with facial recognition spawned a nationwide campaign to ban the technology from concerts and music festivals. Pressure from fans and a festival-worthy lineup of musicians led more than three dozen events—including Coachella, South By Southwest, Bonnaroo, and Hangout Fest—to commit not to use facial recognition on attendees.Earlier this year, over 130 tenants at Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-stabilized complex in Brooklyn, filed a legal objection with the state after their landlord tried to install a facial recognition system similar to the one at Knickerbocker Plaza without their consent. Though the case is still pending, the move heightened public scrutiny, bringing the issue to the attention of city councilors.

During a Monday hearing, New York City councilors mulled over proposals that would require companies and property owners to notify people subject to biometric data collection and register with the city. Another proposal—which is set to be introduced as a bill next week—would require that all landlords give tenants physical keys to their homes, regardless of whether or not they have also installed keyless electronic entry methods like facial recognition or key fob systems.