Opinion | We Built an ‘Unbelievable’ (but Legal) Facial Recognition Machine (Published 2019) (2023)

Most people pass through some type of public space in their daily routine — sidewalks, roads, train stations. Thousands walk through Bryant Park every day. But we generally think that a detailed log of our location, and a list of the people we’re with, is private. Facial recognition, applied to the web of cameras that already exists in most cities, is a threat to that privacy.

To demonstrate how easy it is to track people without their knowledge, we collected public images of people who worked near Bryant Park (available on their employers’ websites, for the most part) and ran one day of footage through Amazon’s commercial facial recognition service. Our system detected 2,750 faces from a nine-hour period (not necessarily unique people, since a person could be captured in multiple frames). It returned several possible identifications, including one frame matched to a head shot of Richard Madonna, a professor at the SUNY College of Optometry, with an 89 percent similarity score. The total cost: about $60.

Opinion | We Built an ‘Unbelievable’ (but Legal) Facial Recognition Machine (Published 2019) (1)

Image from
captured video

Opinion | We Built an ‘Unbelievable’ (but Legal) Facial Recognition Machine (Published 2019) (2)

Image from SUNY College of Optometry

89% match

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh my god, that is unbelievable,’” Dr. Madonna said, after we reached him and explained the experiment. “I was shocked at how readily it seems that it picked me up, because, really — it’s the side of my head.”

In our exercise, we built a database using only photos from public websites, and we obtained Dr. Madonna’s consent before publishing this story. We’ve deleted the images and data that we collected and are no longer monitoring the Bryant Park cameras.

Opinion | We Built an ‘Unbelievable’ (but Legal) Facial Recognition Machine (Published 2019) (3)

Our facial recognition system detected Dr. Richard Madonna walking through Bryant Park. Damon Winter/The New York Times

Over decades, businesses and individuals have installed millions of cameras like the ones we used, inadvertently setting up the infrastructure for mass surveillance. In the past, a human would have to watch the video feed to identify people, making it impossible to comprehensively record everyone’s movements. But the accuracy and speed of modern facial recognition technology means that building a dragnet surveillance system is now feasible.

The law has not caught up. In the United States, the use of facial recognition is almost wholly unregulated.

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“The technology has advanced faster than even I thought that it would,” said Jennifer Lynch, surveillance litigation director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She said that because of how quickly the technology has advanced, she would now support a wholesale ban on government use of facial recognition.

The cameras in Bryant Park were installed more than a decade ago so that people could see whether the lawn was open for sunbathing, for example, or check how busy the ice skating rink was in the winter. They are not intended to be a security device, according to the corporation that runs the park.

But our experiment shows that a person equipped with just a few cameras and facial recognition technology can learn people’s daily habits: when they arrive at the office each day, who they get coffee with, whether they left work early. When we identified Dr. Madonna, he was on his way to lunch with a job candidate — an example of how the midday outings of even law-abiding citizens can sometimes be sensitive information.

The police and governments may also have access to a vast network of cameras. Combine that with a comprehensive database of faces — like a driver’s license database — and it’s possible to track citizens throughout an entire region in real time. There is no evidence that this is happening on a wide scale in the United States. But that’s not because the technology doesn’t exist. Last year, companies claimed they could compare live feeds to a database of billions of faces.

Authorities have used facial recognition to track down criminal suspects and find missing children. But civil liberties advocates warn about the chilling effect on free speech if the government could monitor everyone’s whereabouts — or, say, identify individuals at a protest. This is not a purely hypothetical concern: During 2016 protests after Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police, law enforcement used facial recognition on social media images to identify protesters with outstanding warrants.

"Once the government has the ability to track us and identify us wherever we go, it is impossible to speak and participate in society anonymously," Ms. Lynch said.

Facial recognition in New York City

New York City is nowhere near China, where the government has installed approximately one surveillance camera for every seven citizens. But according to the A.C.L.U., police here have access to more than 9,000 camera feeds in Lower Manhattan alone.

The M.T.A. has tried using facial recognition on feeds from license-plate cameras at the city’s entry points to identify drivers through their windshields, although those efforts have been unsuccessful so far, according to The Wall Street Journal. And the Department of Transportation already has hundreds of cameras across New York City used to monitor traffic, feeds that are also streamed publicly online.

Footage from traffic cameras across New York City. N.Y.C. Department of Transportation

The traffic cameras are most likely too low-resolution for effective facial recognition. But the city’s LinkNYC kiosks, which are scattered through the streets and intended to provide free wireless internet, each have two security cameras. Law enforcement agencies need a subpoena or court order to gain access to the footage, and using facial recognition is against the policy of the company that owns the kiosks. However, the existence of more than 3,000 additional cameras has raised concerns about their potential to bolster the city’s surveillance capabilities.

Opinion | We Built an ‘Unbelievable’ (but Legal) Facial Recognition Machine (Published 2019) (6)

Cameras on

New York City Streets

LinkNYC kiosk


Traffic camera

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Sources: OpenStreetMap, N.Y.C. Department of Transportation, N.Y.C. Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications

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Details are sparse, but there is evidence that those capabilities are formidable. The Police Department claims its Domain Awareness System, developed jointly with Microsoft (which also offers facial recognition software), “utilizes the largest network of cameras, license plate readers, and radiological sensors in the world.”

It’s unclear whether the Domain Awareness System currently uses facial recognition, though the Police Department experimented with it in 2012, according to Clare Garvie, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law School. The police have been reluctant to divulge details, and the center has sued the department for more information.

“We compare facial images picked up by cameras at crime scenes to mugshots in law enforcement records,” said Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a spokeswoman for the department, in an emailed statement. “We do not engage in mass or random collection of facial records from N.Y.P.D. camera systems, the internet, or social media.”

Law enforcement use of the technology

Amazon is one of several companies that sell facial recognition services to the public. The company has highlighted positive applications of the service we used, Rekognition, such as its ability to help find lost children. It insists that it requires customers comply with the law and respect others’ rights, but has been criticized for pushing its technology to law enforcement agencies.

Rekognition is already actively used by the sheriff’s office in Washington County, Ore., including to investigate minor crimes like shoplifting. The Orlando, Fla., Police Department is also using the technology in a pilot program.

Amazon notes that its service makes predictions, not decisions, and that the confidence level the service provides should be incorporated in a human review process. The company recommends using a threshold of at least 99 percent for applications of its facial recognition service that involve identification or public safety, though critics of the technology say that the scoring is opaque and that the company has no way of enforcing that threshold. None of the matches we obtained from the Bryant Park footage, correct or incorrect, met the threshold.

Matt Wood, the general manager of artificial intelligence for Amazon Web Services, noted that it is possible that Rekognition, like other types of information available to law enforcement officials, could be used inappropriately. “The law enforcement agency will have to be accountable to these individuals and to the law if they violate people’s civil liberties,” he said. He added that the company has not received any reports of misuse by law enforcement.

In January, however, the A.C.L.U. sent a letter to Amazon asking it to stop selling facial recognition technology to police and government agencies, saying that the company’s attention to civil liberties has lagged behind that of Google and Microsoft.

“Rekognition marketing materials read like a user manual for authoritarian surveillance,” said Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties director for the A.C.L.U. of California, in a statement last year.

Regulate or ban?

In the United States, there are no federal laws that restrict the use of facial recognition. Most states don’t have regulations (exceptions include Illinois and Texas), nor does New York City, though a city councilman proposed legislation last year that would require businesses to disclose their use of the technology. That would apply to our exercise, but would not extend to law enforcement’s use of facial recognition.

“It’s kind of like a wild, wild west out there,” Ms. Lynch, the E.F.F. lawyer, said.

The lack of regulation has opened the door to a wide range of applications. In 2007, an Arizona sheriff’s office enrolled all of Honduras’s driver’s licenses and mugshots into its database, and a Florida sheriff’s office runs 8,000 searches each month without requiring its officers to have reasonable suspicion of a crime, according to the Georgetown report.

The Georgetown center along with the E.F.F. and others have proposed regulations, including requiring that authorities have reasonable suspicion before conducting a search; prohibiting, except in life-or-death situations, live facial recognition searches using driver’s license databases; and forbidding tracking individuals based on political beliefs, race or religion.

Amazon itself has called for a legal framework that incorporates human review and transparency. But some say that the technology is so dangerous that no regulation is sufficient.

“The future of human flourishing depends upon facial recognition technology being banned,” wrote Woodrow Hartzog, a professor of law and computer science at Northeastern, and Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, last year. “Otherwise, people won’t know what it’s like to be in public without being automatically identified, profiled, and potentially exploited.”

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Facial recognition is categorically different from other forms of surveillance, Mr. Hartzog said, and uniquely dangerous. Faces are hard to hide and can be observed from far away, unlike a fingerprint. Name and face databases of law-abiding citizens, like driver’s license records, already exist. And for the most part, facial recognition surveillance can be set up using cameras already on the streets.

It might be too late for a moratorium or ban, however. Facial recognition is already being used by police departments around the country, Ms. Garvie said.

“We can’t lock law enforcement agencies into 20th-century technology just because 21st-century technology raises very serious risks,” she said.

Dr. Madonna, the person we identified, said he understood that tension. He was initially astonished when we reached out to him, but he said that as a doctor, he often talks to students about the ratio of risk to benefit. He saw the tremendous benefits that facial recognition could offer, he said.

But the technology is open to abuse, he added, when individuals or governments can use facial recognition to track any group, or just about any ordinary citizen — even someone walking through Bryant Park.

Designed by Jessia Ma. Video animations by Drew Jordan.

Sahil Chinoy is a graphics editor for The New York Times Opinion Section.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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Correction: April 16, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated Woodrow Hartzog’s affiliation. He is a professor at Northeastern University, not Northwestern.

Correction: April 16, 2019
An earlier version of this article erroneously included a business among companies that sell facial recognition services. Google does not do so.

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The New York Times is launching an ongoing examination of privacy. We’ll dig into the ideas, history and future of how our information navigates the digital ecosystem and what’s at stake.See all Privacy articles

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What is the biggest problem in facial recognition? ›

The challenge of security

Using FRT poses a significant security threat to its users because it uses biometric data (facial images), which can be easily exploited for identity theft and other malicious purposes.

What impact does facial recognition have on society? ›

Perhaps one of the most well-known applications of facial recognition technology is law enforcement, where agencies can use it to find missing people, aid in solving crimes and help monitor large crowds of people.

How can facial recognition technology be an invasion to privacy? ›

The most significant privacy implication of facial recognition technology is the use of the technology to identify individuals without their consent.

Is facial recognition effective? ›

According to the report, when utilised in this manner, face recognition algorithms can achieve accuracy ratings of up to 99.97 percent on the Facial Recognition Vendor Test conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. However, accuracy rates are typically lower in the real world.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of face recognition? ›

Advantages of face detection include better security, easy integration, and automated identification; Disadvantages include huge storage requirements, vulnerable detection, and potential privacy issues.

What are the pros and cons of facial recognition? ›

Here are some pros and cons of facial recognition.
Pros and Cons of Facial Recognition
  • Helps find missing people.
  • Protects businesses against theft.
  • Improves medical treatment.
  • Strengthens security measures.
  • Makes shopping more efficient.
  • Reduces the number of touchpoints.
  • Improves photo organization.

Is facial recognition more helpful or harmful? ›

Facial recognition has long been a divisive issue. Proponents say the technology is an effective tool for catching bad guys and verifying who we say we are. Critics counter that it is an invasion of privacy, potentially inaccurate and racially biased — and may even result in wrongful arrests.

What are 3 privacy concerns that could result from facial recognition? ›

Data Security

Moreover, data breaches involving facial recognition data increase the potential for identity theft, stalking, and harassment because, unlike passwords and credit card information, faces cannot easily be changed. Faces are becoming easier to capture from remote distances and cheaper to collect and store.

What are the benefits of facial recognition technology? ›

Efficient security

It is faster and more convenient compared to other biometric technologies like fingerprints or retina scans. There are also fewer touchpoints in facial recognition compared to entering passwords or PINs. It supports multifactor authentication for additional security verification.

What are the ethical issues of facial recognition? ›

A foundational ethical issue of facial recognition is that these technologies are often employed without consent or notification. Having access to surveillance cameras or video feeds of employees, customers or the general public doesn't mean it's a good idea to use that data without informing the affected parties.

Is facial recognition a threat to privacy? ›

It carries significant risk of harm to individuals, including vulnerable groups such as children and victims of crime, whose images can be searched on Clearview AI's database. “By its nature, this biometric identity information cannot be reissued or cancelled and may also be replicated and used for identity theft.

What are some examples of misuse of facial recognition? ›

Facial recognition software could improperly identify someone as a criminal, resulting in an arrest, or otherwise cause them reputational damage if they were to be included on, for example, a list of shoplifters.

Why facial recognition is important in the future? ›

Robust facial identification could offer a measure of security for autonomous vehicle owners while also making it easy for them to get on the road ASAP. Another application for facial recognition is health care.

Can facial recognition make mistakes? ›

First, we must understand that no biometric identification technology is accurate 100% of the time and there will always be an error rate, however small. There are different factors that can affect accuracy for each modality, like fingerprint, iris and facial recognition.

Can someone steal your facial recognition? ›

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on synthetic identity fraud: “a fast-growing type of financial crime where fraudsters use an amalgamation of real and fake information to create a new identity.” Thanks to your facial features, a scammer can bypass facial authentication systems, making the scammer's face ...

What causes problems with facial recognition? ›

Prosopagnosia is thought to be the result of abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus, a fold in the brain that appears to coordinate the neural systems that control facial perception and memory. Prosopagnosia can result from stroke, traumatic brain injury, or certain neurodegenerative diseases.

What are the 2 main types of facial recognition? ›

The main facial recognition methods are feature analysis, neural network, eigen faces, and automatic face processing.

Should we be using facial recognition in public? ›

Police should be banned from using live facial recognition technology in all public spaces because they are breaking ethical standards and human rights laws, a study has concluded. LFR involves linking cameras to databases containing photos of people.

Is facial recognition safer than passwords? ›

To lock your smartphone with face recognition or your fingerprint is still more secure than no lock at all. However, biometrics is not more secure than a strong password.

Is facial recognition the future? ›

Research shows that in the near future, facial recognition technology will make significant headway across industries. Businesses using facial recognition to target their marketing efforts toward their potential user base can benefit in more ways than one.

How does facial recognition violate personal rights? ›

Face recognition surveillance presents an unprecedented threat to our privacy and civil liberties. It gives governments, companies, and individuals the power to spy on us wherever we go — tracking our faces at protests, political rallies, places of worship, and more.

Is facial recognition smart technology? ›

In ideal conditions, facial recognition systems can have near-perfect accuracy. Verification algorithms used to match subjects to clear reference images (like a passport photo or mugshot) can achieve accuracy scores as high as 99.97% on standard assessments like NIST's Facial Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT).

Can face recognition be fooled by pictures? ›

For example, Face ID can't be fooled by a photograph. Yet a Dutch consumer association finds that many Android phones, such as OnePlus models and Samsung and Motorola's newer phones, have pretty secure facial recognition as well.

How do I protect myself from facial recognition? ›

How to Evade Facial Recognition as Much as Possible
  1. Say 'No' to Facial Scans. ...
  2. Use Innovative Photo Concealing Apps. ...
  3. Turn Off Facial Recognition from Your Device. ...
  4. Don't Tag Photos on Social Media. ...
  5. Use a VPN.

Where has facial recognition been banned? ›

In Virginia, legislation that went into effect last July banned local law enforcement and campus police from using facial-recognition technology unless the state legislature first passed a rule allowing it.

Why face recognition should not be banned? ›

However, that facial recognition can be used for mass surveillance does not warrant outright bans on the technology. It is not hard to imagine beneficial uses of facial recognition technology. Facial recognition could help police find missing children and adults with dementia who are lost.

How facial recognition can be improved? ›

In a study published today, UNSW scientists have shown focusing on someone's ears and facial marks improves accuracy by 6 percent. This is a significant increase because even experienced face identification staff can get as many as one in two wrong when it comes to comparing photos with unfamiliar faces.

Why are people scared of facial recognition? ›

Beyond the risk of algorithmic bias, there are fears that the technology will be deliberately used in biased and rights-violating ways. For example, skeptics fear that facial recognition might be used by governments as a tool for mass surveillance of minority or dissident groups.

Do banks use facial recognition? ›

Of approximately 11,000 financial institutions in the US, 15% to 20% currently use selfie photo imaging in combination with document verification to authenticate users, and this number is only expected to increase. This article discusses how banks can use facial recognition technology to improve user experience.

Do beards block facial recognition? ›

Although facial hair impacts how humans read and identify faces, studies and demonstrations show that facial hair has minimal to no impact on physiological biometric systems like facial recognition software. Facial hair can be used in combination with other techniques to alter a computer's ability to recognize a face.

Do beards throw off facial recognition? ›

The human brain is thus able to abstract faces from key features, even when many of the features are different from the remembered version of the face. We can still recognise a friend instantly, even if they have grown a beard and cut their hair.

What is the problem with the face recognition system? ›

The top six ethical concerns related to facial recognition systems include racial bias and misinformation, racial discrimination in law enforcement, privacy, lack of informed consent and transparency, mass surveillance, data breaches, and inefficient legal support.

What is the problem of face recognition? ›

Face recognition is generally problematic; it is often inaccurate and has differential error rates by race and gender, which is unacceptable for a technology used for a public purpose.

What are the problem of facial recognition system? ›

Facial Recognition systems can be impacted by poor lighting or low image quality. The data may not match up with the person's nodal points because of camera angles being obscured; this creates an error when matching faceprints cannot be verified in the database.

What is facial recognition problems? ›

Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, means you cannot recognise people's faces. Face blindness often affects people from birth and is usually a problem a person has for most or all of their life.

What are the ethical issues of using facial recognition technology? ›

A foundational ethical issue of facial recognition is that these technologies are often employed without consent or notification. Having access to surveillance cameras or video feeds of employees, customers or the general public doesn't mean it's a good idea to use that data without informing the affected parties.


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