That was weird, but it soon got weirder. About an hour after I spoke with Total Recall, 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 in a phone interview that “yes, they are going to try out our technology there” in response to questions about a face-recognition pilot at the statue. 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 — warning me not to write “any information about Total Recall and the Statue of Liberty or the use of face recognition at the Statue of Liberty.” Both companies declined further requests for comment, and Millius at Total Recall even threatened to take legal action against me personally if I continued to “harass” him with additional questions.
Linda Friar, a National Park Service spokeswoman, confirmed that the procurement process for security screening equipment is ongoing, but she refused to comment on whether the camera surveillance system inside the statue 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? It would probably be easier to squeeze blood from a stone than to obtain answers to those questions. “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 phone interview.
The great irony here, of course, is that this is a story about a statue that stands to represent freedom and democracy in the modern world. 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 and cannot know about the potential use of contentious surveillance tools used to monitor them as they visit that very statue. Whether Cognitec’s ethnicity-detecting face recognition software will eventually be implemented at Lady Liberty remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that the attempt to silence reporting on the mere prospect of it is part of an alarming wider trend to curtail discussion about new security technologies that are (re)shaping society.
Ryan Gallagher is a London-based journalist who reports regularly on surveillance technology for Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation and Slate, exploring how emerging technologies affect society, policy and culture.