ACLU Blasts Plan to Use Flawed Facial Recognition System at Statue of Liberty and Other NY Landmarks

May 24, 2002 12:00 am

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NEW YORK–The American Civil Liberties Union today sharply criticized a plan to use ineffective facial recognition technology during the Memorial Day weekend to augment security at popular New York tourist destinations including Ellis Island and the Statute of Liberty.

“”To have such a system in place near the Statue of Liberty — our nation’s beacon of liberty — is both ironic and disheartening,”” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the national ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. “”It may be a good sales stunt for the manufacturer, but it is an insult to the American people and to those in law enforcement who truly know how to keep us safe.””

In a news release issued earlier today, Visionics Corporation said it will “”loan”” its FaceIt ARGUS surveillance system to the National Park Service for use at the ferry embarkation area to Ellis Island and the Statute of Liberty. Park police will scan the faces of individuals passing through and compare them against a database of known terrorists compiled by federal authorities.

But the ACLU said numerous studies show that the technology is rife with problems and has time and again proven to be ineffective. “”This technology has been tested and rejected by numerous branches of the federal government,”” Steinhardt said. “”The facts show that under real-world conditions, Osama Bin Laden himself could easily evade a face recognition system.””

Just last week, interim results of a face-recognition surveillance system like the one to be used in Battery Park was obtained from the Palm Beach International Airport by the ACLU of Florida. Internal documents show that the system failed to match volunteer employees fully 503 out of 958 times, or 53 percent of the time, in a test that took place under ideal conditions using recent photos.

Studies show that facial recognition software cannot cope with changes in lighting or camera angle or images with busy backgrounds, and that it is easily misled by people wearing glasses or hats. Those are exactly the conditions that will be in place at crowded Battery Park on Memorial Day Weekend.

Not only does the software fail to identify people who are actual security threats, it also has a high rate of “”false positives”” — wrongly matching people with photos of others. Visitors to New York landmarks this weekend therefore should be prepared to find themselves being pulled aside for intrusive searches and identity checks, the ACLU warned.

The ACLU has created a special web feature on face recognition technology, including a report on systems in Florida, online at

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