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.
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.)
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.