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Tenants sounded the alarm on facial recognition in their buildings. Lawmakers are listening.

Imagine being locked out of your home because software selected by your landlord can’t identify your face. 

A facial recognition-based check-in system on display at an integrated security exhibition in Yalta, Crimea. It shows a camera and an attached screen that displays a man’s face. A green box outlines and detects the man’s face on the screen. The text on the screen reads, “Face is not checked in!”
A facial recognition-based check-in system on display in Yalta, Crimea.
Sergei Malgavko/TASS via Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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Lawmakers want to press pause on deploying facial recognition and other biometric technology in public housing. Though it’s not clear the extent to which the technology is already being used in public housing (or other categories of government-supported and -regulated housing), lawmakers say facial recognition raises privacy concerns, and point to its known inaccuracies, especially when applied to people of color and women (among other minority groups).

There’s no law regulating facial recognition at the federal level yet. But complementary legislation introduced in the House and the Senate — the “No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act” — would put a hold on the use of biometric-based recognition systems in most housing supported by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The bill also directs the department to conduct research into the technology and its potential impact on residents of public housing.

HUD says on its website that about 1.2 million people live in public housing units, which are run by more than 3,000 housing agencies.

“[W]hen public housing and federally assisted property owners install facial recognition security camera systems, they could be used to enable invasive, unnecessary, and harmful government surveillance of their residents,” wrote eight members of Congress, including Sens. Cory Booker and Ron Wyden and Reps. Yvette Clarke and Rashida Tlaib, in a letter to HUD Secretary Ben Carson last week. “Those who cannot afford more do not deserve less in basic privacy and protections.”

Among other questions, lawmakers want to know how many federally assisted public housing properties have already used facial recognition.

“The goal of what this bill does is getting ahead of [facial recognition] before it becomes an issue,” said Sarah Sinovic, a spokesperson for Rep. Clarke, who first proposed the House legislation alongside Reps. Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley in July. “We don’t want to get into a situation where individuals are subjected to this and there hasn’t been anything to pump the brakes.”

An online petition in support of the bill has already attracted at least 44,000 signatures, though the legislation does have at least one critic: the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. The think tank said in an online statement that “[r]ather than lock out low-income Americans from the latest innovations, Congress should welcome the availability of technology that prevents them from getting locked out of their homes.”

It’s not clear how widespread the technology actually is. In Detroit, surveillance cameras installed in public housing could be used in conjunction with facial recognition technology, according to the New York Times. In New York City, facial recognition has also been used for years at a Lower East Side affordable housing complex called Knickerbocker Village, as reported by the Gothamist, that’s overseen by New York State’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR).

In a statement to Recode, a HUD spokesperson said that no housing authorities have asked to fund facial recognition software through its emergency safety and security fund (that’s the same thing HUD told the New York Times in September). The spokesperson did not clarify whether this fund was the only way in which HUD could become aware of facial recognition used in federally assisted housing.

Barbara Brancaccio, a spokesperson for the New York City Housing Authority, which oversees low- and moderate-income housing, says facial recognition is not used at any of its developments.

The case of Atlantic Plaza Towers

The proposed federal legislation was inspired by the organizing efforts of New York residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-stabilized building complex in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Residents there successfully pushed their landlord, Nelson Management, to withdraw plans for a facial recognition system. The proposed federal bill technically wouldn’t apply to those residents (the buildings are not HUD-assisted housing), but their objections highlight much of what has lawmakers worried. For one thing, the residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers only became aware of the introduction of the technology through a “modification of services” application document that must be sent to tenants. In the case of Atlantic Plaza Towers, that notice is only required because facial recognition was not initially used by the building complex.

(Brooklyn Legal Services, which assisted the Atlantic Plaza Towers tenants, has said that only some of the residents got the notice, adding to concerns about basic transparency with residents.)

The document sent to residents (which you can view at the bottom of this article) argues that traditional key fobs allow people who are not authorized to enter the building, and that key fobs can also be copied. “Facial recognition cannot be duplicated whereas a key fob can be,” says the note, explaining that the building owner planned to use facial recognition technology provided by a Kansas-based security company called StoneLock. (AI Now, a research nonprofit, wrote a letter to DHCR explaining that the StoneLock offers a somewhat unique biometric system since it identifies faces through heat-mapping).

Tranae Moran, a community organizer at Atlantic Plaza Towers and privacy advocate, says she was already uncomfortable with the use of facial recognition on social media platforms, and found the idea that the technology would be used to regulate entry into her building “immediately alarming.” She said that no significant effort was made to explain the technology to residents.

Residents also had other concerns. The technology is known to be especially inaccurate when applied to women and people of color (who constitute a large majority of Atlantic Plaza Towers residents). Those findings were confirmed by a National Institute of Standards and Technology study released last week.

Moran said she was also worried about children being scanned into the system, and added that the community at Atlantic Plaza Towers already feels surveilled, noting that the system was proposed amid increasing gentrification in her neighborhood.

“You’re basically locked out of having agency over your own biometrics, which is worse than being locked out of your credit card or your debit card or having an account frozen because of some funny activity,” said Fabian Rogers, a floor captain and community advocate at the Atlantic Plaza Towers Tenant Association.

He expressed concern that residents wouldn’t have control over the data collected by these systems, that the technology could be used to enforce evictions, and that the police could potentially gain access to the system and its data.

“Affordable housing populations are being heavily taken advantage of because of the fact that their circumstances hinder them from being part of the fight for better, essentially. And landlords are running amuck because there aren’t proper policies to protect tenants in the first place,” he said.

“Imagine coming home from work at the end of the day — you might work one, two, maybe three jobs — you’re trying to get into your home. And you can’t get through your front door, you can’t get past the lobby because the screening [or] the scan of your face doesn’t recognize you as you,” added Sinovic. “Just because someone happens to be lower-income and in public housing doesn’t mean that they should be the ones that are the guinea pigs that are used for this software.”

After significant tenant organizing, the residents managed to put a hold on the plans, and the landlord withdrew the application. “I appreciate feedback from residents and stakeholders throughout this process, and look forward to continued progress on upgrades at Atlantic Plaza Towers,” said Nelson Management president Robert Nelson in a statement to Recode.

“[Nelson Management] could still put in an application literally months away from now and we still have no proper protection,” cautions Rogers. Nelson Management did not clarify to Recode whether it would potentially move to install a facial recognition system in the future.

New York is pushing legislation to give tenants more options

A proposed bill in New York City would guarantee tenants the right to a physical key, and says that landlords can’t force tenants to use various security technologies to enter their homes, including “facial recognition” and “biometric scanning.” Legislation has also been proposed in the New York State Senate and Assembly that would ban the use of facial recognition in residential buildings.

“Technology that discriminates against tenants of color, denies residents access to their own homes, and robs tenants of their privacy rights and control over their own biometric data does not belong in residential spaces, no matter how the building is zoned,” said Samar Katnani, an attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services, in an email. Brooklyn Legal Services says it’s aware of at least four other New York City buildings with facial recognition, and a fifth that is moving to install the technology.

But none of that legislation has been enacted yet. Since the case of Atlantic Plaza Towers’ proposal, DHCR has received one application for the use of facial recognition technology in a rent-regulated building in Corona, Queens, whose owner wants to install a “virtual doorman” that will provide several methods for entering the building, including facial recognition and a traditional key.

“[The Office of Rent Administration] will not issue an order until it has carefully reviewed both the owner’s and tenants’ submissions,” said Sochet Charni, a spokesperson for DHCR, in an emailed statement to Recode.

Meanwhile, Moran is calling for more collaboration among lawmakers, organizers, and technology experts.

“Terms change every few years in technology. By the time something goes into effect for ‘facial recognition,’ we’re going to be dealing with something new under a new name and new term,” said Moran of the laws that have been proposed. “The walls between agencies and between industries are way too high. They need to open some windows and talk to each other.”

Below is an excerpt from the document, provided to Recode by Brooklyn Legal Services, sent to some residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers.

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