Facial-Recognition Push Draws Fire in House

WASHINGTON (CN) – A trio of Democratic congresswomen introduced a bill Thursday to prohibit the use of facial-recognition technology in most federally sponsored public housing.

“This technology in its current state has proven to be flawed — we know the accuracy of facial-recognition technology significantly decreases when screening people of color and women,” New York Representative Yvette Clarke said in a statement. “We also need safeguards for how collected biometric data is shared and stored. Only once we address these bias and privacy concerns can we have the conversation about public housing’s usage of biometric technology.”

Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., speaks on May 1 at a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security in Washington.

Clarke has constituents who took legal action earlier this year when their landlord at Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-stabilized building in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, announced a plan to replace their key-fob entry system with facial-recognition technology.

In addition to expressing concerns about how the landlord might use the biometric data that such software would gather, the tenants argued that reliance on the untested technology could lead to black and Latino residents, women, and the elderly being locked out of their own homes.

“We don’t believe he’s doing this to beef up security in the building,” said Icemae Downes, an Atlantic Towers tenant since 1968, as quoted this spring by CityLab. “We believe he’s doing this to attract new tenants who don’t look like us.”

If passed, the legislation would be the first of its kind to limit the use of biometric technology for tenants whose homes are funded or subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Someone living in public housing should not be the guinea pig for the emerging technology of biometric facial screening just to enter their own home,” Clarke said.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., testifies on July 12 before the House Oversight Committee on border jails where the United States is detaining immigrant families in squalid conditions.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Representative Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, notes that police in her district started an initiative called “Project Green Light” to use facial-recognition tech in HUD-funded properties.

“We must be centered on working to provide permanent, safe, and affordable housing to every resident – and unfortunately, this technology does not do that,” Tlaib said in a statement Thursday. “As representatives, we have a duty to protect our residents.”

Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley summed up her concerns in a statement Thursday as well.

“Vulnerable communities are constantly being policed, profiled, and punished, and facial recognition technology will only make it worse,” she said.

Representative Ayanna Pressley speaks at a Massachusetts Democratic Party unity event on Sept. 5, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

The tendency of facial-recognition technology to misidentify nonwhite people is well documented, and activists and others have expressed concern about uses for the harvested data.

Representatives at the Brooklyn Legal Services’ Tenant Rights Coalition, which has worked with the residents of Atlantic Plaza Towers, did not immediately return requests for comment Thursday.

“The ability to enter your home should not be conditioned on the surrender of your biometric data, particularly when the landlord’s collection, storage, and use of such data is untested and unregulated,” Samar Katnani, a Brooklyn Legal Services attorney who represented the tenants, said in a statement earlier this year.

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