Privacy group sues MTA over use of facial recognition at Times Square subway station

A privacy group is suing the MTA over its apparent use of facial recognition technology at a busy Manhattan subway station – though the agency claimed the tech was fake to scare people out of attempting fare evasion.

The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) – a New York-based privacy organization — filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court, demanding the release of records about the alleged use of facial recognition at Times Square–42nd Street/Port Authority Bus Terminal station.

STOP originally asked for the records from the MTA and New York City Transit through a Freedom of Information Law request, after a woman tweeted a photo of a video monitor at the subway station that said “recording in progress.” The screen seemed to be recording people as they entered and exited the station while showing yellow squares around their faces.

The group sued, claiming the MTA did not respond quickly enough to their FOIL.
“New Yorkers deserve to know if the MTA is using invasive new spy tools,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of STOP. “More than eight months ago, we submitted a straightforward request, but since then we’ve received nothing but evasion and stonewalling. If the MTA was telling New Yorkers the truth about their facial recognition systems, then why has it taken nearly a year to get the documents that prove it?”

The tweeted photo shows the word “Wisenet” in the top left corner of the screen. The security company offers facial recognition technology cameras. Its website features a photo of a child entering a home with a similar square around his head as the one seen in the tweet.

When the tweet was first shared, the MTA denied it was using facial recognition technology, claiming the video monitor was only intended to scare people out of turnstile jumping. The MTA reiterated that position. “There is absolutely no facial recognition component to these cameras, no facial recognition software, or anything else that could be used to automatically identify people in any way, and we have no plans to add facial recognition software to these cameras in the future. Beyond that, it’s our policy not to comment on pending litigation,” MTA spokesman Shams Tarek said in a statement.