Since the French first gave it to us in 1886, The Statue of Liberty has become the most recognized symbol of the United States of America. For more than 120 years, countless eyes have gazed up at Lady Liberty and marveled at her beauty and her symbolic meaning of freedom and democracy.
So why would we ever think that Lady Liberty herself would be staring back down at us, scanning our faces and racially profiling us? Well according to Ryan Gallagher at Slate.com, that’s exactly the case.
Liberty Island, which has been closed to the public since Hurricane Sandy slammed the east coast last summer, is set to reopen on July 4th. Very fitting, right? A symbol of America coming back to life on America’s birthday. But when the island reopens, there will be some newly-installed, state-of-the-art security measures in effect: Most notably, facial recognition technology.
Now, this type of surveillance technology is nothing new; there have been variations of it that have come out over the years, but those who are familiar with facial recognition software understand that the technology still has a ways to go before it can be utilized efficiently. According to Gallagher, the Statue of Liberty actually first experimented with an early version of this surveillance software back in 2002, but as far as its’ effectiveness, the ACLU was quoted as saying, “Osama Bin Laden himself could easily dodge it.”
However, since 2002, the facial recognition technology has significantly advanced, and last year, Police Product Insight magazine reported that a trial of the latest software would be installed at the Statue of Liberty near the end of 2012.
Gallagher decided to look into this, and found that New York-based surveillance camera contractor Total Recall Corp. had been quoted as saying that this new software is called “FaceVACS,” made by Cognitec, a German firm. Cognitec boasts that FaceVACS 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.”
Gallagher was interested in learning more about this new facial recognition software, so this past March, he spoke with Statue of Liberty superintendent Dave Luchsinger, who confirmed that plans were indeed underway to install a new ‘state-of-the-art’ video surveillance system on the island in time for the July 4th reopening. And when asked about facial recognition technology, Luchsinger directly acknowledged it and said, “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.”
Here’s where the story starts to get scary…
Gallagher then phoned Total Recall’s director of business development, Peter Millius, who said, “It’s still months away, and the facial recognition right now is not going to be part of this phase.” Then, he put Gallagher on hold for a few minutes, and when he returned to the phone, he suddenly insisted that the facial recognition project had in fact been vetoed by the Park Police, and that Gallagher was in no way ‘authorized’ to write or publish anything about the project.
Gallagher immediately saw this sudden change in position as a suspicious red flag, and as he explains, the situation suddenly became even tenser:
“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.’”
So what can be taken away from this?
Clearly, facial recognition surveillance technology will indeed be used at Liberty Island upon its reopening, and it would seem that Gallagher was able to speak with people regarding this before they were given the order not to speak about it (or, maybe they just got the memo too late). Once it became clear that a journalist had gotten wind of the project, these people were obviously told by higher-ups to do a 180 and deny everything that they had said before, and the very fact that they threatened Gallagher with legal action clearly shows that there is something to hide here.
Sure, a few years ago, one could look at this as just another “paranoid conspiracy theory.” But with all the government scandals that have surfaced over the last few weeks and months, and most notably the startling information regarding top-secret, nationwide surveillance that’s been provided by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, is it really that far fetched to assume this is another surveillance-related invasion of privacy that Big Brother doesn’t want the public to be aware of?
Gallagher summarizes the situation brilliantly when he says, “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… [and] 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.”