What Happened When I Tried to Write About Surveillance at the Statue of Liberty

What's to come?
April 29 2013 5:45 AM

Lady Liberty’s Watching You

I wanted to write about face-recognition software considered for use at the statue. Here’s what happened.

The Statue of Liberty seen in New York on December 4, 2009.
The Statue of Liberty is upgrading its surveillance technology. Just don’t mention face recognition.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The Statue of Liberty is getting a facelift, though the changes aren’t only cosmetic. An upgraded "state of the art" security system will help keep Lady Liberty safe when it reopens soon. But what does the system entail, and could it involve a controversial new face-recognition technology that can detect visitors’ ethnicity from a distance? I tried to find out—and a New York surveillance company tried to stop me.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

Face recognition was first implemented at the Statue of Liberty in 2002 as part of an attempt to spot suspected terrorists whose mug shots were stored on a federal database. At the time, the initiative was lambasted by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it was so ineffective that “Osama Bin Laden himself” could easily dodge it.

But the technology has advanced since then: Late last year, trade magazine Police Product Insight reported that a trial of the latest face-recognition software was being planned at the Statue of Liberty for the end of 2012 to “help law enforcement and intelligence agencies spot suspicious activity.” New York surveillance camera contractor Total Recall Corp. was quoted as having told the magazine that it was set for trial at the famed tourist attraction software called FaceVACS, made by German firm Cognitec. FaceVACS, Cognitec boasts in marketing materials, can guess ethnicity based on a person’s skin color, flag suspects on watch lists, estimate the age of a person, detect gender, “track” faces in real time, and help identify suspects if they have tried to evade detection by putting on glasses, growing a beard, or changing their hairstyle. Some versions of face-recognition software used today remain ineffective, as investigators found in the aftermath of the Boston bombings. But Cognitec claims its latest technology has a far higher accuracy rating—and is certainly more advanced than the earlier versions of face-recognition software, like the kind used at the Statue of Liberty back in 2002. (It is not clear whether the face-recognition technology remained in use at the statue after 2002.)

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Liberty Island took such a severe battering during Sandy that it has stayed closed to the public ever since—thwarting the prospect of a pilot of the new software. But the statue, which attracts more than 3 million visitors annually according to estimates, is finally due to open again on July 4. In March, Statue of Liberty superintendent Dave Luchsinger told me that plans were underway to install an upgraded surveillance system in time for the reopening. “We are moving forward with the proposal that Total Recall has come up with,” he said, adding that “[new] systems are going in, and I know they are state of the art.” When it came to my questions about face recognition, though, things started to get murky. Was that particular project back on track? “We do work with Cognitec, but right now because of what happened with Sandy it put a lot of different pilots that we are doing on hold,” Peter Millius, Total Recall’s director of business development, said in a phone call. “It’s still months away, and the facial recognition right now is not going to be part of this phase.” Then, he put me on hold and came back a few minutes later with a different position—insisting that the face-recognition project had in fact been “vetoed” by the Park Police and adding that I was “not authorized” to write about it.

That was weird, but it soon got weirder. About an hour after I spoke with Total Recall, an email from Cognitec landed in my inbox. It was from the company’s marketing manager, Elke Oberg, who had just one day earlier told me in a phone interview that “yes, they are going to try out our technology there” in response to questions about a face-recognition pilot at the statue. Now, Oberg had sent a letter ordering me to “refrain from publishing any information about the use of face recognition at the Statue of Liberty.” It said that I had “false information,” that the project had been “cancelled,” and that if I wrote about it, there would be “legal action.” Total Recall then separately sent me an almost identical letter—warning me not to write “any information about Total Recall and the Statue of Liberty or the use of face recognition at the Statue of Liberty.” Both companies declined further requests for comment, and Millius at Total Recall even threatened to take legal action against me personally if I continued to “harass” him with additional questions.

Linda Friar, a National Park Service spokeswoman, confirmed that the procurement process for security screening equipment is ongoing, but she refused to comment on whether the camera surveillance system inside the statue was being upgraded on the grounds that it was “sensitive information.” So will there be a trial of new face-recognition software—or did the Park Police “cancel” or “veto” this? It would probably be easier to squeeze blood from a stone than to obtain answers to those questions. “I’m not going to show my hand as far as what security technologies we have,” Greg Norman, Park Police captain at Liberty Island, said in a brief phone interview.

The great irony here, of course, is that this is a story about a statue that stands to represent freedom and democracy in the modern world. Yet at the heart of it are corporations issuing crude threats in an attempt to stifle legitimate journalism—and by extension dictate what citizens can and cannot know about the potential use of contentious surveillance tools used to monitor them as they visit that very statue. Whether Cognitec's ethnicity-detecting face recognition software will eventually be implemented at Lady Liberty remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the attempt to silence reporting on the mere prospect of it is part of an alarming wider trend to curtail discussion about new security technologies that are (re)shaping society. 

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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