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Foss: Do more to rein in facial-recognition software

Foss: Do more to rein in facial-recognition software

Foss: Do more to rein in facial-recognition software
The author writes that facial-recognition software is creepy -- the kind of thing George Orwell might have envisioned.
Photographer: 1000 WORDS/SHUTTERSTOCK INC.

We have far less privacy than we used to. 

Surveillance cameras are ubiquitous. So are automated license plate readers. Many of us carry smartphones that are capable of tracking our every move, and use websites that vacuum up our data and sell it to third parties. 

Most of these technological advances have occurred with little input or objection from the public, but there are signs that this is changing. 

New legislation, introduced last week in the New York State Legislature, would bar landlords from using facial-recognition software in rental buildings. 

Facial-recognition software is creepy -- the kind of thing George Orwell might have envisioned. 

It's a technology that's capable of identifying individuals by analyzing their features in videos, pictures and real-time, and while I appreciate any effort to rein it in, the proposed legislation is woefully inadequate. 

Sparked by a New York City landlord's desire to install facial-recognition software at a rent-regulated building in Brooklyn, it does nothing to address the far more worrisome prospect of facial-recognition software in public spaces. 

Right now, this technology is unregulated and prone to error and, like many "smart" technologies, poses ethical questions that aren't fully understood. 

Certainly, it isn't difficult to see how the lack of clear guidelines, combined with a lack of transparency as to how facial-recognition software is used and where it's deployed, could lead to the oppressive government surveillance of the sort civil libertarians have warned about for years. 

Last week San Francisco took a far bolder stance against facial-recognition software -- one the state of New York might look to for inspiration. 

The city became the first municipality in the country to ban local government agencies from using facial recognition software. 

Of course, the technology has yet to be deployed by San Francisco, making the ban largely theoretical. 

The implications of a ban would be far different in New York, where facial-recognition software is already being used by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York Police Department. Last summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo revealed that facial-recognition technology is scanning drivers' faces at New York City tolls and tunnels and entering them into databases.

If this gives you a feeling of unease, you're not alone. 

I'm not sure New York needs to ban facial-recognition software forever, but we shouldn't deploy any more of it -- or use the technology we already have -- until the state has taken steps to protect residents' privacy. 

In a column supporting San Francisco's facial-recognition software ban, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo, who focuses on technology, worried that "we're stumbling dumbly into a surveillance state. And that's why I think the only reasonable thing to do about smart cameras now is to put a stop to them." 

He added, "We might still decide, at a later time, to give ourselves over to cameras everywhere. But let's not jump into an all-seeing future without understanding the risks at hand." 

I'm not ready to give myself over to cameras everywhere, and I'm not sure I ever will be. 

Regardless, it's time -- past time, really -- for a discussion of what privacy means and how we preserve it in an increasingly networked and wired world. 

State and local governments need to consider how to protect the rights of their citizens, rather than thoughtlessly deploy new technology that encroaches upon them. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. 


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