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To Keep Public Housing From Becoming 'Panopticon of Automated Face Scanning,' Democrats Push Facial Recognition Ban

"Surveillance of poor communities isn't about safety, it's about social control."

Two congresswomen are expected to introduce legislation banning the use of facial recognition surveillance in public housing this week. (Photo: stock photo/Getty Images)

Privacy and civil liberties advocates applauded a pair of Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday as they prepared to introduce legislation to protect public housing residents from the rise of facial recognition surveillance.

In a letter sent to their fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) invited co-sponsors for the No Biometric Barriers to Housing Act, which would stop public housing complexes which accept funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from installing facial recognition tools.

"The ability to enter your home should not be conditioned on the surrender of your biometric data, particularly when the landlord's collection, storage, and use of such data is untested and unregulated."
—Samar Katnani, Brooklyn Legal Services

Tlaib and Clarke cited strong evidence that facial recognition software disproportionately misidentifies women, transgender people, and people of color and could subject public housing residents to unlawful arrests as well as violating their privacy.

"The policing and criminalization of poverty is already an ugly reality for many people living in these communities," the congresswomen wrote. "Public housing exists to provide shelter for our constituents, not another opportunity to be wrongly profiled. We simply cannot allow untested and biased technologies to undermine tenants' civil liberties or their quality of life."

Fight for the Future, which launched a campaign earlier this month demanding a federal ban on government use of facial recognition surveillance and warning the technology "enables automated and ubiquitous monitoring of an entire population," praised Tlaib and Clarke's proposed legislation.

"Facial recognition surveillance should be banned everywhere, but keeping it out of public housing is an excellent start," said Evan Greer, the group's deputy director. "If public housing units become a panopticon of automated face scanning and monitoring, it will mean more people in prison, more police abuse, and more families torn apart. Surveillance of poor communities isn't about safety, it's about social control."

Jamaal Bowman, who is running for U.S. Congress in the Bronx and who serves many marginalized families as a middle school principal, also applauded the proposal.

Facial recognition surveillance has been banned recently by three U.S. cities and has been the target of growing condemnation on both sides of the political spectrum in Congress, with both Democratic and Republican members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee slamming the technology at a hearing in May.

The technology was created by an industry not known for its racial diversity, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) noted.

"We have a technology that was created and designed by one demographic, that is only mostly effective on that one demographic, and they're trying to sell it and impose it on the entirety of the country," Ocasio-Cortez said of the tech sector.

"Seems to me it's time for a timeout," added Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). "Doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum you're on, this should concern us all."

Also in May, tenants in Brooklyn's Atlantic Plaza Towers filed a legal complaint with New York state after their landlord announced plans to install facial recognition technology in their building.

"We don't believe he's doing this to beef up security in the building," longtime tenant Icemae Downs said in a statement. "We believe he's doing this to attract new tenants who don't look like us."

"The ability to enter your home should not be conditioned on the surrender of your biometric data, particularly when the landlord's collection, storage, and use of such data is untested and unregulated," added Samar Katnani, an attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services' Tenant Rights Coalition, which represents the residents. "We are in uncharted waters with the use of facial recognition technology in residential spaces."

"The installation of biometric technologies on public housing properties poses an acute risk to those already on the margins," Clarke and Tlaib wrote on Tuesday. "Using this flawed technology as the basis for everything from building access to potential arrest for perceived trespassing thus poses a unique risk to these groups."

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