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New York City wants more information on where you're going

Surveillance cameras in New York City.
Getty Images
Surveillance cameras in New York City.

New York City wants more information on where you've been, where you're going and whom you're with.

The city — which already has a database on many residents, drivers and nondrivers — has recently launched initiatives that will, among other things, track drivers and passengers entering and leaving the city, as well as where cabs and ride-hailing services pick you up and drop you off.

At a hearing last Wednesday, representatives from Uber, Lyft and black car services pushed back against an NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission proposal that would require them to report passenger drop-off locations.

They argued that the TLC has all the information it needs to address driver fatigue — its stated aim — since the companies already report pickup location and trip duration.

"By adding drop-off time and location … the privacy risk posed by this dataset grows substantially, offering the TLC and anyone else who accesses this information a comprehensive 360-degree view into the movements and habits of individual New Yorkers," privacy advocates wrote in a letter to the TLC last month.

The daily commutes of millions of New Yorkers are about to get a lot more attention. In October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo laid out a $27 billion overhaul of the city's bridges and tunnels to fight congestion and improve security, dubbed the New York Crossings Project. Some 800,000 vehicles cross the city's bridges and tunnels daily.

"At each crossing, and at structurally sensitive points on bridges and tunnels, advanced cameras and sensors will be installed to read license plates and test emerging facial recognition software and equipment. These technologies will be applied across airports and transit hubs — including the Penn-Farley Complex — to ultimately develop one system-wide plan," according to New York State's website.

Police and private security personnel monitor security images in New York City.
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Police and private security personnel monitor security images in New York City.

Face-recognition technology compares features like eyes, nose, cheekbones and jaw with stored images to find matches. The governor's office has provided few details on how it will use, store and protect the data.

By combining facial recognition and license plates with other databases, like driver's licenses or property records, the state could create a very full picture of a person's life, said Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"We should not normalize this sort of surveillance, but should actually examine it every time it comes up," she said.

Real-time face recognition is particularly invasive, since it allows authorities to track someone's location, something the courts have protected, said Clare Garvie at Georgetown's Center on Privacy & Technology.

"We would hope that if they are expanding their use of face recognition — particularly to something as invasive as real-time face recognition on all drivers entering the city through certain points of entry — that they would very clearly outline how this information can be used, against whom it can be used and what's done with the information," she said.

It is likely that the faces captured by the Crossings Project will feed into the New York City Police Department's "command center," she said. Inside that center, anti-terror police already monitor surveillance video from some 9,000 cameras, a daily feed of 3 million license plates from roadside license plate readers and track global terror events, according to ABC News.


The NYPD started using face-recognition technology in 2011. A small specialized team of detectives runs images of unidentified suspects though facial-recognition software to compare surveillance camera images with criminal databases, Instagram and Facebook.

The NYPD denied a request for information about the system, then said it could not find any information about it, said Garvie.

"We are still waiting on that information, and it looks like we may have to litigate for it," she said.

At least one face-recognition system the NYPD has used was provided by DataWorks Plus — a vendor to several law enforcement agencies — according to a document obtained by Garvie.

Through its IDNYC program, the city has compiled a database of residents that includes illegal immigrants. New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio has threatened to destroy the database if it is used by the incoming Trump administration for deportation purposes. (Other New York lawmakers say that would violate the law, and are fighting in court to keep it.)

In November 2016, a judge rejected a lawsuit settlement over the New York Police Department unfairly monitoring Muslims following the 9/11 terror attacks and suggested changes to the agreement to increase protections against unwarranted police surveillance.

The Trump administration has yet to outline any clear policy proposals on surveillance, but President-elect Trump's campaign rhetoric suggested a lack of respect for the First Amendment and raised the possibility of increased surveillance of non-U.S. citizens, said Garvie.

The New York State Governor's office and New York Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. The Metropolitan Transportation Agency declined to comment.