Who’s Using Facial Recognition Technology?
Good morning. It’s Tuesday. Facial recognition technology is increasingly being used to scan customers entering stores or, in the case of Madison Square Garden Entertainment, to scan ticket holders for basketball or hockey games or shows. We’ll look at where this is happening in New York City.
Credit…Gili Benita for The New York Times
After Kashmir Hill, a technology reporter, learned that some businesses in New York City were using facial recognition software, she went on a walk — a five-mile walk from Lower Manhattan to Midtown. Her trek, on a cold Friday, followed a City Council hearing about the use of facial recognition by private businesses.
As the hearing dragged on, she realized that none of the elected officials or the people testifying knew which companies besides Madison Square Garden Entertainment were using facing recognition technology. She had already reported on the Garden.
Using Google maps, she worked out a route that would take her through TriBeCa, along Canal Street and up the Avenue of the Americas, passing a lot of stores. I asked her to talk about what she learned along the way.
You raised a lot of questions in the story you wrote after that City Council hearing. Let’s start with the most basic one: Who’s actually using the technology, and why?
We already knew Madison Square Garden Entertainment was using it. They started using it for security threats from violent fans and for lawyers. Using it against lawyers is concerning to lawmakers because part of democracy is that you can sue people or companies you feel have done you wrong. To punish the lawyers who bring those cases by not allowing them into basketball or hockey games at the Garden or shows at Radio City could have a chilling effect.
But I was surprised. I only found two businesses on my walk that revealed they were using facial recognition technology — Fairway, the grocery store, and Macy’s.
How did you decide where to go on your “walkabout?”
Oftentimes, retailers are skittish about talking about using facial recognition technology because it raises privacy concerns, as well as accuracy concerns. But after our articles about Madison Square Garden, people kept asking me who else uses it in New York City.
In the course of reporting the Madison Square Garden story, I had realized that New York City has a law on the books that says any store that’s using facial recognition technology is supposed to have a sign. I thought, I can just go and look for those signs.
Is the city enforcing that law?
No, and Fairway told me that’s one reason they started using facial recognition technology.
At the City Council hearing, someone from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection testified and was asked who was responsible for enforcing it. He said it’s up to the public — people can sue if a store is not in compliance.
The lawmakers pressed him on this, asking if consumer affairs has inspectors who go out and make sure the signs are up and in conspicuous places. He said no. He was also asked if there had been any complaints about stores that were not in compliance. He said, “I don’t think so.”
Why aren’t the high-end retailers in SoHo using it, while Fairway is?
I was surprised. I thought I would find some signs in SoHo. What I found was a lot of employees.
As soon as you walk in the door, there are people greeting you, watching you, I felt very observed by human eyes.
I told one greeter at Coach what I was doing, looking for the signs. He was like, “Why would somebody have facial recognition?” I told him that it’s typically used to identify known shoplifters. He said, “We know who those people are, we recognize them, we just crowd the door when they come in.”
By the way, Mayor Eric Adams has encouraged stores to adopt facial recognition technology. In an interview in January, he was talking about the rise in shoplifting and crime and said he thought businesses needed to get more creative in their solutions — and he mentioned facial recognition technology.
Fairway told me that this technology has helped them, that it has reduced crime. They didn’t tell me how much. After my story published, the I Love the Upper West Side blog went to the Fairway on Broadway in the West 70s. It didn’t have a sign. After they asked if there was facial recognition technology there, the store put up a sign.
On my walk I had visited an Amazon Go convenience store with cameras, sensors and palm scanners so that shoppers can just pick up items and walk out without scanning their items. I thought surely it would have a sign, but it didn’t. Amazon told me it only collected biometrics from people who voluntarily scanned their palms, so it didn’t need the signs.
But a class-action lawsuit filed last week said that they put up those signs after my story came out.
How accurate is facial recognition?
This is a matter of some debate.
The good systems perform really well in testing. There’s a national lab, National Institute of Standards and Technology, that tests facial recognition technology.
But a lot of critics say it’s not testing it the way it’s used. There’s no one who’s seeing how accurate these systems are out in the wild, so to speak. I would say facial recognition is getting more and more accurate because the underling artificial intelligence is getting more powerful.
You also went to a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden. You spent $171.59 for the ticket. But you wanted to see something before the game, didn’t you?
Yes. I like hockey, but I was not there to see the Rangers, I was there to see what happened to my guest as we went through security.
After we went through the metal detector, she was getting her bag, and I thought we were not going to get flagged. But then a security guard stepped up and asked her to step aside. He was very polite. They clearly have a process. He asked for her ID and asked to see her ticket, which was on my phone, and then we had to wait for someone from management to come over.
They confirmed that she is on the banned list because her firm is involved in litigation against Madison Square Garden, and the management person gave her a note that basically said she can’t come in until the litigation is resolved.
Enjoy a sunny day in the low 60s. At night, it’s mostly cloudy, with temps in the mid-40s.
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I had recently been asked to paint a portrait of a friend’s mountaintop cottage. So I did, positioning it atop a speckled field of tall grass and red and white wildflowers.
Not completely satisfied with the painting, I brought it to my plein-air class at the Art Students League so my instructor could help me with it.
There we were, near the meatpacking district. Twelve easels were trained on a building that was still a bit down on its luck amid its share of litter and grime.
A passer-by, a bearded older man, walked from student to student, matching each painting to each perspective of the little building.
Clad in colorfully dappled, loosely fitting clothes, this street-corner art critic scrutinized each easel, sometimes reacting with a comment, sometimes pausing for a question.
When he got to me, he looked at the grimy building in front of me and looked at the painting of an idyllic cottage on my easel. Then he did a triple take worthy of a 1930s screwball comedy.
“Lady,” he said, “if that’s what you see, more power to you.”
— Anne van der Does
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
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Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].