AT COUNCIL HEARING, PUBLIC ADVOCATE CONDEMNS THE ABUSE OF FACIAL RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY
Feb. 24, 2023
Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams on Friday condemned the abuse of facial recognition technology for targeting and denying the rights of New Yorkers. During an oversight hearing of the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection led by Chair Marjorie Velázquez, he presented several of the dangers of ‘non-consensual data capture,’ and argued for regulations and restrictions to prevent intrusions and injustices.
“While there are security concerns that impact the decision making of private businesses, the City of New York cannot let businesses broadly use facial recognition technology and run afoul of everyone’s right to privacy as granted under the U.S. Constitution,” argued Public Advocate Williams.
The Public Advocate’s comments, and the hearing itself, focused on MSG Entertainment’s reported use of facial recognition to bar and remove individuals from events at its venues based on the attendee’s connections to legal action against the company. This facial recognition-fueled ‘blacklisting’ has drawn intense scrutiny and condemnation.
“We must engage in discussions now on how to address and prevent the use and abuse of all these technologies,” continued the Public Advocate. “It can’t be left up to businesses and big corporations, or to a few billionaires and millionaires.”
The Public Advocate and his office have long been engaged with issues surrounding facial recognition, partnering with advocates on the Ban the Scan campaign in 2021 to raise awareness of and create protections around the dangers of both public and private use of the tool. In addition to privacy concerns, he has repeatedly highlighted issues of racial injustice with this technology – which is far more likely to mis-identify Black individuals.
The Public Advocate’s full comments from today’s hearing are below.
STATEMENT AS DELIVERED BY PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS
TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON CONSUMER AND WORKER PROTECTION
FEBRUARY 24, 2023
My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chair Velázquez and the members of the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection for holding this hearing and for allowing me to say a few words. I want to start by aligning myself with your words, and with your awesome article in City and State today.
Fundamentally, New Yorkers are protected by the First Amendment’s right to privacy. Individuals should expect that they can freely conduct private transactions without being surveilled. To that end, in 2021 my office partnered with then Borough President Gale Brewer, Amnesty International, S.T.O.P, and AI For the People on a Ban the Scan campaign, raising awareness of the dangers of public and private use of facial recognition AI. At that time I asked the previous administration to 1- Cease use of all facial recognition technology, 2 - Permanently destroy data collected and used for facial recognition in the past, and 3 - Publish data concerning each instance in which facial recognition technology was utilized.
Through non-consensual data capture, businesses violate the right to privacy, and we’ve also seen much concern when it comes to law enforcement. Individuals should not be removed from a place of business, because their employer is involved in legal action against said business. Especially when the business engages in its trade, in the case at hand—selling tickets to events, and then reneges to allow the purchaser/employee to redeem the ticket they purchased. The employee is not involved in the litigation. If any business could monitor and remove people because of a grievance against an employer or someone they have a relationship with, it would mean a world where businesses have the right to bar anybody from any establishment based on a tangential connection. Moreover, there was another instance where a parent was denied entry to an event on a school trip in which they were serving as an escort. This act created safety risk for the children as well as creating a stressful situation for the other adult who had to care for more children on their own.
Furthermore, citizens should not be photographed, recorded, and have personal information scanned without any repercussions. In today’s economy, privacy is highly valuable. As our data broker economy continues to grow, there must be measures in place to protect New Yorkers’ privacy. It is unclear today whether facial recognition software used in private businesses is also selling the information to data brokers.
While there are security concerns that impact the decision making of private businesses, the City of New York cannot let businesses broadly use facial recognition technology and run afoul of everyone’s right to privacy as granted under the U.S. Constitution. It is important to note the many documented instances of facial recognition technology having racial and gender biases. Researchers at MIT reported in January 2019 reported that facial recognition software marketed by Amazon misidentified darker-skinned women 31% of the time, while others have “shown that algorithms used in facial recognition return false at a higher rate for African Americans than white people unless explicitly recalibrated for a black population.” Specifically, the technology misidentifies people with dark complexions 15% of the time as compared to only 3% for people with light complexions, we’ve also heard similar numbers when it comes to people of transgender experience. These findings prompted experts at Google, Facebook, and Microsoft to sign a letter calling on Amazon to stop selling its facial-recognition technology to law enforcement.
Also, facial recognition technology is only one of several biometrics technologies being developed for identification purposes. Others include Long-range cardiac signature detection, Gait analysis, and an Iris scan. We must engage in discussions now on how to address and prevent the use and abuse of all these technologies. It can’t be left up to businesses and big corporations, or to a few billionaires and millionaires.
I also just want to say as a person who suffers from the disease of ‘Knick-fandom’ when it comes to MSG, I have been scarred by many of the decisions of owner James Dolan - I have to say it’s getting a little better now, so putting that out there. But as a New Yorker, many of the antics of the owner are much worse, much more harmful, from removing people from MSG to this use of facial recognition.
I do want to put on the record that I also believe we should be reviewing the renewal of the tax abatements and exploring moving MSG as well. My hope is that someone would have been here from MSG to answer some of these questions, it is really important. There’s a point where private and public really come in connection, and we can't allow it to just run amok – government has to step in.
So I’m glad we’re having this hearing, and thank you very much, Madam Chair.