The use of facial recognition in New York City has surfaced over the years across a spectrum of users, from landlords to private businesses. But nowhere has the deployment been more pervasive and consequential than within law enforcement.
In announcing his bill on Monday, Hoylman cited multiple troubling reports of the NYPD's use of facial recognition, ranging from the compilation of a database of juvenile photos, the running of celebrity images and doctored mug shots and sketches through databases, and most recently, the unsanctioned use of a controversial app called Clearview AI. The New York Times this month published an in-depth profile of the company, which has scraped and collected billions of photos from the Internet and claims to be used by more than 600 law enforcement agencies.
“Facial recognition technology threatens to end every New Yorker’s ability to walk down the street anonymously," Hoylman said in a press release. "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, non-binary and non-conforming people."
This is not the first time the Manhattan Democrat has targeted the use of facial recognition technology. In May, he and Assemblywoman Latrice Walker introduced a bill that would make it illegal for residential landlords to use the technology.
States and municipalities across the country have been moving to regulate facial recognition, albeit in a somewhat scattered fashion. To date, at least three other states—California, Oregon and New Hampshire—have limited the use of facial recognition by police officers. In those three instances, police can no longer use facial recognition or other biometric technology in body cameras.
In the most sweeping move yet, San Francisco last year became the first city to forbid any local government agency, including the police, from using facial recognition.
Still, New York's law would be among the first attempts by a state to impose an outright ban on biometric technology use by police.
It is also likely to face pushback. The NYPD has argued that the use of facial recognition has led to both arrests and exonerations. In a New York Times Op-ed last year, James O'Neill, the former police commissioner, described the use of facial recognition as "carefully controlled" and said that it had become "a uniquely powerful tool in our most challenging investigations."
Reached for comment about the bill, an NYPD spokesperson said, "We will review the language of the bill when it becomes available, but to not use technology like this would be negligent. The NYPD identifies suspects by comparing a still image from a surveillance video to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos and this technology helps bring justice to victims. A facial recognition match is solely a lead—no one has ever been arrested solely on the basis of a computer match, no matter how compelling."
A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio said the administration was "reviewing the bill." Governor Andrew Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Criminal justice advocates say they have little reason to trust the NYPD and have pointed to studies that have shown that facial recognition is poor at recognizing people of color, in particular blacks and Asians.
"I think it’s particularly important when we are talking about communities that are already falsely identified too often and are already over-surveilled and over-policed, that we take a stance against that," said Jerome Greco, the supervising attorney of The Legal Aid Society's Digital Forensics Unit. "We should not be embracing technology that clearly has these problems."
Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), an advocacy group which fights against local and state-level surveillance, said the legislation was in line with what other states were doing as they discover the "Orwellian potential" of facial recognition.
At the city level, Cahn has been pushing for the passage of a 2017 City Council bill that would require the NYPD to disclose every surveillance tool it employs, from mobile X-ray vans to facial recognition. Although the mayor has criticized the plan as providing "a roadmap for the bad guys," support is growing, with 33 councilmembers signed on to date, one vote shy of a veto-proof majority.
Cahn said he viewed the City Council bill as complementary with Hoylman's legislation. He warned that facial recognition technology had evolved to the point where it it is now "incredibly easy for the city to keep a constant log of where everybody is moving at a relatively low cost."
"We need both of these bills," he said. "Facial recognition has no place in an open and democratic society."