The Tenants Fighting Back Against Facial Recognition Technology

Anton Watman/Shutterstock.com

The landlord of a rent-stabilized apartment in Brooklyn wants to install a facial recognition security system, sparking a debate about privacy and surveillance.

Last year, residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-stabilized apartment building in Brooklyn, found out that their landlord was planning to replace the key fob entry system with facial recognition technology. The goal, ostensibly, was to modernize the building’s security system.

But some residents were immediately alarmed by the prospect: They felt the landlord’s promise of added security was murky at best, and didn’t outweigh their concerns about having to surrender sensitive biometric information to enter their own homes. Last week, lawyers representing 134 concerned residents of the building filed an objectionwith the state housing regulator. It is the first visible opposition in New York City to the deployment of such technology in the residential realm.

“We’re calling ourselves the Rosa Parks of facial recognition in residential buildings,” said Icemae Downes, a resident who has lived in the building since 1968 and was part of a residents’ protest last week. “We’re standing up to say, ‘No, we don’t feel this is right.’”

Before making any big changes, landlords overseeing rent-stabilized apartments in New York have to put in an application with the state’s Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) agency. After Nelson Management Group, which runs Atlantic Plaza Towers, started that process last year, some clients formally registered their reservations. Last week’s filing consolidated the objections of 134 residents from the 700-unit complex, arguing that installing the scanner would violate the terms of their lease agreement. The lawyers are now demanding a hearing on the matter.

“The landlord has made it clear that tenants will not be permitted to opt out,” said Samar Katnani, an attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition, who is representing the residents. “So there is no concept of consent in this—really, it’s the tenants having no agency over this unique information.”

Nelson Management told Gothamist that the technology is intended to boost security, and that it is has “engaged a leading provider of security technology for proposed upgrades, which has assured ownership that data collected is never exposed to third parties and is fully encrypted.”

The building complex already has a security guard and its common areas are wired with several security cameras. And the residents say they already feel heavily watched. Last month, the New York Times reported that when some of them gathered in the lobby to discuss the facial recognition system, building management sent them a notice with pictures taken from a security camera and a warning that the lobby was not “a place to solicit, electioneer, hang out or loiter.” (Landlords, however, don’t have the authority to ban peaceful assembly in this way.)

“How much more surveillance do we need,” said Downes, who is a longtime tenant organizer. She worries that the technology will have a chilling effect on not just the residents, but anyone who visits them. “We’re saying we don’t want this; we’ve had enough. We should not feel like we’re in a prison to enter into our homes.”

Facial recognition technology has proliferated dramatically in the last few years, but the rules surrounding its usage haven’t really caught up. That’s particularly concerning given the research out of MITdetailing how inaccurate it can be for people of color and women: One analysis found that facial recognition software had an error rate of 0.8 percent for white men, and 34.7 percent for black women.

Even if the technology becomes more accurate, its dominance over the public realm and potential impact on vulnerable residents have long worried privacy and civil liberties advocates. Historically, poor and marginalized communities—and by extension the spaces in which they live—have been disproportionate targets of state surveillance, and new technologies and techniques are often first used on such individuals before they are rolled out more widely, advocates say. (See, for example, the Chinese surveillance on the Uyighur Muslim community.) These communities are often exposed to unique privacy risks if the database in which their biometric information is stored is breached or hacked.  

In 2016, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology found that the use of facial recognition by federal, state, and local law enforcement affects 117 million people in the U.S. “A few agencies have instituted meaningful protections to prevent the misuse of the technology,” the report reads. “In many more cases, it is out of control.” (The report suggests model legislation that might help regulate the conditions in which the technology may be used by law enforcement.)

In San Francisco and Oakland, privacy advocates have been pushing legislation forbidding city agencies from using facial recognition technology. If the legislation passes, they would be the first cities to take such a step. “It’ll be too dramatic of a power shift between the government and the governed,” said Brian Hofer, chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission and one of the chief architects of the ordinance, about the mission creep. “We’ll be tracked the minute we step out of our home, and lose the ability to be anonymous in public.”

The use of this technology in public and subsidized housing appears to be spreading: In Detroit, a controversial surveillance program that recently integrated facial recognition may be coming to public housing. Since 2010, activists in Los Angeles have been fighting against the police department’s push to outfit public housing projects with security cameras, and use facial recognition technology to match the captured faces to pictures in gang databases. (Those databases have been criticized as being overly broad, inaccurate, and opaque.) Even private developers are jumping on the bandwagon. In New York, affordable housing developer Omni New York boasted it would feature “a state of the art facial recognition system at the front entrance” of one of its Bronx developments for low-income families and former homeless veterans.

To allay privacy concerns, the company providing the technology to Atlantic Plaza, Stonelock, maintains that its system works differently from other commercial facial recognition products—it collects only a small percentage of the visual information it scans. The company also does not have any access to the captured data and does not share it with third parties, a spokesperson said. The customer—in this case, the landlord—controls the information captured by the scanner, which takes photos up to three feet away.

That’s still a problem, Downes said, because the tenants have little say in the matter and no avenue for redress if something goes awry. It exacerbates an already-imbalanced power dynamic between the landlord and the residents, most of whom are people of color and female. “Why should a private person be able to say that I own this property and I will do what I want to do to my tenants?” she said. “We’re saying that’s a slave mentality and we don’t like it.”

Housing complexes of low-income residents may be one early testing ground for residential applications of facial recognition technology. But they’re not the only ones. Amazon’s doorbell company, Ring, is coming out with a video doorbell that incorporates facial recognition, which has the ACLU worried about the risk of high-tech profiling of “suspicious” persons.

In the case of Atlantic Plaza Towers, it’s not clear when the state agency will make a final decision on the new system. For Downes, the matter needs to be decided by state legislators who can draft proper guidelines around the usage of such technology, the consequences of which are not well-understood.

“Their residential system has not been tested and we do not want to be their test case,” she said.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.