Fighting facial recognition tech, new bill would mandate keys

October 8, 2019 Kelly Mena
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A new City Council bill set to be introduced next week would require that landlords at all residential buildings provide physical keys to their tenants, combating recent use of facial recognition technology at low-income housing developments across the city.

City Council member Brad Lander, a member of the Committee on Technology, is sponsoring the KEYS (Keep Entry to Your home Surveillance-free) Act, which underscores recent frustration from tenants citywide who contend that the installation at their buildings of facial recognition, biometric scanning and other “smart” key technology has led to privacy and accessibility issues, instead of greater security protections.

This past March, tenants at Atlantic Plaza Towers in Brownsville began fighting their landlord, Nelson Management Group, over the proposed installation of facial recognition technology (called StoneLock) at their 718-unit rent-stabilized building. The residents filed a formal legal complaint with New York State’s Homes and Community Renewal — the state agency with oversight of rent-regulated housing — in May, citing civil rights concerns and privacy issues.

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State laws require landlords of rent-regulated apartments built before 1974 to seek permission from HCR for any “modification in service,” according to Gothamist.

“Interestingly enough, we often talk and focus on the innovation of these emerging technologies around us. We get caught in the glamour of a new gadget that offers a better set of convenience in everyday activity,” said Fabian Rogers, a decade-long resident of Atlantic Towers, at a City Council hearing on Monday. “However, we don’t think or talk often about the missteps — just like other science experiments, the hypothesis that come with these technologies can have room for error.”

The margin of error, Rogers said, is typically “fine to tinker with and improve upon” — but in the case of facial recognition technology, that margin involves the personal information of private citizens.

“A person’s biometrics is essentially priceless and unique to them,” he said.

According to Anna Stallmann, a spokesperson for StoneLock, the technology is an opt-in biometric access control system with no tracking capabilities.

Stallman noted that user data is encrypted within the system and remains under the control of the system administrator — in this case,  landlord Nelson Management. The technology is incompatible with photographic databases and useless for third-party identification purposes, she said, and StoneLock only retains around 5 percent of the biometric data collected.

According to a source close to Nelson Management, nothing resembling a facial recognition system has been installed, and the company is still awaiting feedback from the state on an application to make the modification.

Nelson Management boasts a portfolio of more than 3,000 rental units across 11 developments in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Atlantic Towers is the only one being sited for the technology update, according to the source.

“This is surveillance taken up a notch — this just becomes an intrusive way of trapping not criminals, but paying tenants,” Rogers told the Brooklyn Eagle.

The current security system, according to Rogers, who has lived at the complex since 2008, is a series of three doors. The first one opens to the public, the second one requires a fob, and the third one — past the security desk — requires the same fob. Rogers says the facial recognition technology will be added to that first door, adding to the already rigorous maze of security on site.

“Landlords’ increasing use of smart keys, facial recognition, biometric scanning, and other technology poses a serious threat to the rights of tenants, one that falls disproportionately on lower-income communities of color who are already subject to greater surveillance in their daily lives,” said Councilmember Lander in a press release.

Lander’s bill follows the introduction of a federal bill, the “No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act of 2019,” introduced by U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke, who represents Brownsville. The federal bill would prohibit facial, voice, fingerprint and DNA identification technologies from public housing.

The KEYS Act will be introduced on Oct. 17, the next time the entire City Council convenes at City Hall.

Correction (12:20 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the breadth of the bill. It would apply to all residential units, not just rent-stabilized ones. The story has been updated and the Eagle regrets the error.

Correction (12:55 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly called Councilmember Brad Lander the chair of the Committee on Technology. He is a member. The story has been updated and the Eagle regrets the error.

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