NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell this week soothed privacy advocates by saying that the department was not currently looking to expand its use of powerful facial recognition technologies.
Yet while it might be the case that the NYPD is not now eyeing these potent capabilities — or robot dogs, or armed drones, or gait recognition, or any other of the proliferating technologies making civil libertarians sweat — that could change at the flip of a switch whenever it decides that these tools are worth deploying. Mayor Adams himself seems much more enthusiastic about surveillance tech, and he’s the one person who can overrule Sewell on that.
Some legislators have expressed consternation at Adams’ talk, but instead of playing whack-a-mole after the fact, how about they do their job and take proactive steps to stop abusive practices before they happen? Bills to completely ban facial recognition in all possible use cases are misguided and over-broad, but there are plenty of options between total prohibition and free-for-all.
Trying to put the genie back in the bottle will be much harder than just setting out clear and enforceable ground rules now. The Legislature and the City Council should stake out the exact contours of acceptable government utilization of facial recognition, setting out clear red lines like, for example, a prohibition on real-time facial analysis against warrants. Jim Dolan having Madison Square Garden use facial recognition to keep out lawyers he doesn’t like is already highly questionable, but is piddling compared to handing the same potent tool to street cops in a way that will surely chill First Amendment speech.
They should also build in processes so that these standards can be periodically reevaluated and modified to stay ahead of changing times. The pace of technical advances has made clear that things are moving too fast for the often glacial legislative process to keep up.
Everyone has the right to show their face in public. But having that face be scanned against a giant database by the cops is a concern for anyone with a face.
Daily News Editorial Board