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Democratic Senators Are Demanding An Investigation Into The Use Of Facial Recognition In Public Housing

Lawmakers are demanding HUD Secretary Ben Carson investigate the use of facial recognition technology in public housing.

Last updated on December 18, 2019, at 10:56 a.m. ET

Posted on December 18, 2019, at 10:01 a.m. ET

Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images

Eight lawmakers sent a letter to the Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson today demanding information about the deployment of facial recognition technology in federally assisted housing. Signed by Sens. Ron Wyden, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, among others, the letter expresses concern that facial recognition might be used to enable “invasive, unnecessary and harmful government surveillance” of people who live in public housing.

The federal government does not currently regulate the use of facial recognition at all. HUD, similarly, has no regulations on the use of facial recognition in public housing.

“Those who cannot afford more do not deserve less in basic privacy and protections,” the letter reads. “They should not have to compromise their civil rights and liberties nor accept the condition of indiscriminate, sweeping government surveillance to find an affordable place to live.”

The letter asks how many public housing properties have used facial recognition in the last five years and whether any federal money has gone toward the purchase of facial recognition technology. It also asks whether the HUD has any policies to regulate the use of facial recognition in public housing and whether the department has conducted any research on the technology or its use in public housing. Finally, it notes growing scientific evidence that facial recognition has high rates of inaccuracy and mismatching, especially for women, people of color, and gender-nonconforming individuals.

“These false and biased judgments can exacerbate the vulnerabilities that marginalized groups already face in life, such as the overcriminalization of people of color and transgender individuals,” the letter says. “Potential sharing of this data, particularly with law enforcement, further heightens concerns about the risk this technology poses to vulnerable communities.”

The lawmakers who signed the letter — who also include Sens. Sherrod Brown and Ed Markey, as well as Reps. Yvette Clarke, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib — demand a response from HUD by Jan. 24, 2020.

Tranae Moran — a community advocate for the Atlantic Towers Tenants Association in New York City, who has successfully organized against the use of facial recognition in residential buildings — told BuzzFeed News that she’s glad lawmakers are investigating the use of facial recognition in public housing but believes this should have happened a long time ago.

“I feel like they're behind,” Moran said. “People have already been affected by facial recognition and biometric software. This should’ve been something that happened maybe five or six years ago before people were being affected by it.”

The lawmakers’ letter cited a New York Times report about the use of facial recognition technology in Detroit's public housing, as well as efforts to install facial recognition technology in rent-stabilized and low-income housing in New York City. It also referred to reports from Georgetown University and the American Civil Liberties Union, which have shown that facial recognition technology often mismatches individuals.

Moran said her concern is that facial recognition is already being used in public housing, and vulnerable populations are being used as “test subjects.”

“They’re deploying it in the Bronx, in the low-income buildings... In Knickerbocker Village, they’ve actually had facial recognition and have had it since 2014,” she said. “So the trend is it’s being deployed on communities of color and low-income communities. And we are being used to test these systems, and I am totally against that in every way, shape, and form.”


December 18, 2019
The Honorable Ben Carson
Secretary
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
451 7th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20410

Dear Secretary Carson:

We write to express concern and request information about the deployment of facial recognition technology in federally assisted properties.

According to media reports, public and other federally assisted housing administrators across the country are installing facial recognition technology, ostensibly to deter crime and improve resident safety. For example, according to The New York Times reporting earlier this year, Detroit’s public housing authority upgraded its security cameras to include facial recognition technology. The system’s data are made available to the Detroit Police Department as part of Project Green Light, the city’s crime-fighting and community policing program. Similarly, in New York City, owners and managers of affordable housing have already installed facial recognition technology without consulting the residents they purport to want to keep safe.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is responsible for creating and ensuring discrimination-free practices in all communities. However, as numerous civil rights experts have pointed out, when public housing and federally assisted property owners install facial recognition security camera systems, they could be used to enable invasive, unnecessary and harmful government surveillance of their residents. Those who cannot afford more do not deserve less in basic privacy and protections. They should not have to compromise their civil rights and liberties nor accept the condition of indiscriminate, sweeping government surveillance to find an affordable place to live.

In addition to concerns about surveillance and civil rights, reports from Georgetown University and the American Civil Liberties Union all indicate that inaccuracies in facial recognition can undermine the safety and security the technology purports to address. According to scientific studies published in the Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery, facial recognition misidentifies many individuals, including women, non-cisgender people and people of color. These false and biased judgments can exacerbate the vulnerabilities that marginalized groups already face in life, such as the overcriminalization of people of color and transgender individuals. Potential sharing of this data, particularly with law enforcement, further heightens concerns about the risk this technology poses to vulnerable communities.

All Americans, including those who live in public and other federally assisted housing communities, have fundamental privacy and civil liberty rights. Please provide us with responses to the following questions by January 24, 2020:

1. How many federally assisted housing (subsidized through the public housing and project-based rental assistance programs) properties have used facial recognition technology in the last five years? Please provide:
a. a list of these properties and their location; and
b. a breakdown of residents’ demographic information for each property.
2. Owners of federally assisted housing may purchase security cameras and software to address threats to the health and safety of residents.
a. During the past five years, have federal funds been used to purchase facial recognition technology?
b. If so, who developed the facial recognition technology and where has it been deployed?
3. What policies has HUD implemented to ensure that the residents of federally assisted housing enjoy the same rights against warrantless government surveillance as residents in private housing?
a. Do residents have any opportunity to opt-out of facial recognition data collection?b. If not, why not?
4. Has HUD conducted any research or internal approval regarding the inclusion of facial recognition technology within federally assisted properties?
5. What scientific data show that facial recognition technology is effective in improving safety?
6. How has the usage of facial recognition technology affected the federally assisted properties where it has been deployed?
7. Has it impacted arrest rates, local crime occurrences, or had any other notable impacts?

What enforceable rules does HUD have in place to ensure that biometric data collected by facial recognition technologies in federally assisted properties are kept secure and subject to effective cybersecurity safeguards?

What policies does HUD have in place to empower and include residents in the decisions about if and how facial recognition technology is used in their communities and homes?

Thank you for your prompt attention to this important matter.

UPDATE

This story has been updated with the most current draft of the lawmakers' letter.


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