In Manhattan, a Technology Reporter Asks: Are You Scanning My Face?

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As a technology reporter, I spend far too much time sitting at my desk speaking with sources by phone or over Zoom. I rarely get the opportunity to do on-the-ground reporting, so I was elated to tackle a story, published last week, that involved going on a very, very long walk.

I cover privacy at The New York Times and have written extensively about facial recognition technology. In December, I came across a surprising story: Kelly Conlon, a lawyer, was prohibited from seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York because she worked for a law firm that sued the venue’s parent company, Madison Square Garden Entertainment. Ms. Conlon, who was not directly involved in the case, had been identified through the venue’s cameras, which use facial recognition technology. I was surprised to see a use case like that — one that effectively punished corporate enemies.

For an article that published in December, I reported on Ms. Conlon’s story. For a follow-up article the following month, my colleagues and I reviewed court cases, interviewed affected lawyers from different law firms and discovered that thousands of other lawyers from approximately 90 firms had also been banned from the company’s four venues in the city. This reporting and that of other outlets led the New York City Council to hold a hearing last month about the use of facial recognition by private businesses.

I was there that cold Friday morning, in a windowless room in a building across the street from City Hall. City Council members expressed “concern” in their opening remarks, and the public advocate Jumaane Williams called Madison Square Garden “cowardly and disrespectful to the process and the Council” for failing to send a representative to testify.

Sam Davis, a partner at Ms. Conlon’s firm, and a parade of activists testified about the technology’s potential harm and the need to rein in its use by commercial businesses. Representatives from the security industry testified about its utility in discouraging crime.

As the hearing dragged on for hours, the only thing that became clear to me was that none of the elected officials or the people testifying actually knew which companies in New York City, besides Madison Square Garden Entertainment, were using facial recognition technology.

I realized that this question could be answered with good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. In 2021, the city passed a unique law that required any business gathering “biometric” data — including “faceprints,” or digital scans of faces — to notify customers by placing a “clear and conspicuous sign” at every entrance. I had recently pitched my editor, Rachel Dry, on a “privacy walkabout” to figure out which businesses were scanning people’s faces and why.

My commute to The Times’s office after the hearing seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it. Using Google Maps, I created a five-mile route that would take me through retail-heavy neighborhoods: My walk would begin at City Hall and end at the New York Times office in Midtown.

I began walking around noon and traveled through TriBeCa, along Canal Street and up Avenue of the Americas, looking for signs and stopping at retailers, including Apple, Coach and Target, along the way. Once inside, I asked if they used the technology. (None said they did.) It wasn’t until I crossed 25th Street, three hours after starting my journey, that I spotted my first sign at a grocery store.

A flimsy piece of paper posted on the outside of Fairway Market’s sliding glass door read “biometric identifier information disclosure” and contained a paragraph warning customers that “biometric identifiers” were being collected. This sign, which did not explicitly mention facial recognition, was far less conspicuous than the version the city recommends, which includes icons depicting a person’s face being scanned. If I hadn’t been looking for the sign, I don’t know that I would have noticed it.

I approached an employee who was doing inventory, awkwardly explained my reporting mission, and asked about the “biometric identifier” sign. He didn’t know what I was talking about — I’d imagine the term doesn’t immediately translate to “facial recognition” for most people. He suggested I talk to another employee, who seemed a little bewildered by my questions but answered them nonetheless. He told me that the store was using a facial recognition system, and that it had been used just that morning to kick out a person who had previously shoplifted coffee from the store.

The person who was operating the system, a loss prevention employee, declined to talk to me and said she needed permission from her boss. I was disappointed, but left her my card just in case. (In an email, a spokeswoman for Fairway later told me that the facial recognition software was put in place about a year ago to deter repeat shoplifters.)

It was an illuminating walk. I was surprised there weren’t more businesses using facial recognition technology, though a lawyer I spoke to said it was possible they didn’t know about the compliance law. Of the 24 or so stores I visited during my four-hour walk, only two had signs acknowledging biometric capture. But my 18,000 steps (according to my iPhone’s built-in pedometer) were only a small survey of a vast city.

As much as I would like to spend the next few months walking around New York searching for signs, especially in the spring when the weather is nice, I decided it might make more sense to ask for help. So I ended my story with a plea to readers, asking anyone who spots such a sign around the city to email me. I haven’t received many responses so far — maybe because others haven’t noticed any, either — but I’ll be keeping an eye out.