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A threat to Liberty

Heavy-handed ultimatums stifle discussion of security

– 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. Could the system involve a controversial new face-recognition technology that can detect visitors’ ethnicity? I tried to find out – and a surveillance company tried to stop me.

Face recognition was first implemented in 2002 to try to spot suspected terrorists whose mug shots were on a federal database. The initiative was lambasted by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said it was so ineffective that “Osama bin Laden himself” could dodge it.

But the technology has advanced: Late last year, Police Product Insight reported that a trial of the latest face-recognition software was being planned at the statue for the end of 2012. New York surveillance camera contractor Total Recall Corp. was quoted as having told the magazine that it was set for trial software called FaceVACS, made by German firm Cognitec. FaceVACS, Cognitec boasts, can guess ethnicity based on skin color, flag suspects on watch lists, estimate age, detect gender, “track” faces in real time, and help identify suspects if they have tried to evade detection via glasses, a beard or changing their hair.

Liberty Island took such a severe battering during Superstorm Sandy that it has stayed closed to the public ever since. But the statue is finally due to open again on July 4. In March, Statue of Liberty superintendent Dave Luchsinger told me that plans were under way to install an upgraded surveillance system in time for the reopening. When it came to my questions about face recognition, though, things started to get murky. “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. “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.

About an hour later, 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 that “yes, they are going to try out our technology there.” 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. Both companies declined further requests.

Linda Friar, a National Park Service spokeswoman, refused to comment on whether the camera surveillance system 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? “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 interview.

The great irony is that this is a story about a statue that represents freedom and democracy. 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 know about the potential use of contentious surveillance tools used to monitor them as they visit that very statue. The attempt to silence reporting is part of an alarming wider trend to curtail discussion about new security technologies that are (re)shaping society.

Ryan Gallagher reports regularly on surveillance technology for Future Tense. He wrote this for Slate.