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New York lawmakers seek to ban facial recognition technology in rental buildings

The use of biometric data analysis is becoming a hot-button issue

Tests On Facial Recognition Technology Begun At Berlin Suedkreuz
A surveillance camera using facial recognition technology in Germany.
Photo by Steffi Loos/Getty Images

State lawmakers have proposed legislation that would outlaw the use of facial recognition technology in rental buildings, arguing that the technology—widely used in public spaces, airports, and other areas outside of homes—represents “a new and dangerous breach of tenant privacy.”

“New Yorkers have an expectation of privacy in their homes,” Sen. Brad Hoylman, the bill’s sponsor in the state Senate, said in a statement. “Facial recognition systems would give landlords the ability to track, at the very least, every entry and exit of their tenants and guests.” Brooklyn Assembly member Latrice Walker has introduced similar legislation in that body.

Those legislators represent districts where the use of smart technology by landlords has led to pushback from tenants. Residents of a Hell’s Kitchen building (in Hoylman’s district) sued their landlord after a keyless entry system was installed, citing fears of being tracked or having their data collected. (Latch, the company responsible for that keyless tech, says it does neither of those things.) The suit was settled out of court, with tenants getting physical keys to their spaces.

A fight over facial recognition technology is now playing out in Walker’s district: The landlord of Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-regulated building in Brownsville, wants to install the technology in that building. Many residents have objected, pointing to the well-documented problems with biometric data, namely that it’s often inaccurate, particularly in identifying people of color.

“Studies show, again and again, that facial recognition software is less accurate when analyzing faces of color,” Hoylman said. “Its surge in popularity across our city—especially in residential buildings—is deeply alarming.”

The bill would make it illegal for landlords to “obtain, retain, access, or use” any automated or semi-automated facial recognition technology, and would give the state’s Attorney General the right to impose fines and/or issue an injunction against it use.

There is now some precedent for this bill: This week, San Francisco became the first municipality to outright ban facial recognition software, with legislators there framing it as a civil rights issue.