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Journalist threatened, warned not to write about face-recognition at Statue of Liberty

May 01, 20137 mins
Data and Information SecurityEnterprise ApplicationsMicrosoft

Journalist threatened by alleged supplier of Statue of Liberty face-recognition tech, warned not to write about facial recognition implementation at America's icon for liberty and freedom.

America’s 59 national parks and 108 national monuments are some of our countries greatest treasures, but sometimes things pertaining to “national security” just get really weird. Such is the case in which Slate’s Ryan Gallagher, author of Future Tense, investigated new face-recognition software that will be running when the Statue of Liberty reopens on July 4, Independence Day. Gallagher wrote that “last year, trade magazine Police Product Insight reported that a trial of the latest face-recognition software was being planned at the Statue of Liberty for the end of 2012 to ‘help law enforcement and intelligence agencies spot suspicious activity’.”

New York surveillance camera contractor Total Recall Corp. was quoted as having told the magazine that the tourist attraction would hold a trial of software called FaceVACS, made by German firm Cognitec. FaceVACS, Cognitec boasts in marketing materials, 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.

He was told that this new and improved surveillance system would be up and running for Lady Liberty’s grand reopening. But Peter Millius, Total Recall’s director of business development, told Gallagher, “It’s still months away, and the facial recognition right now is not going to be part of this phase.” After being put on hold, Millius then came back and insisted that the face-recognition project had been vetoed by the Park Police and Gallagher was “not authorized to write about it.”

It’s extremely odd, considering that Total Recall Corp has an article on its site about its complex security and video surveillance system. Granted, it is dated in 2004, but it wasn’t a national security secret. Total Recall Corp reported, “To safeguard the monument, her visitors and park employees, numerous safety and security measures have been put into place. One of the most critical systems is the Video Surveillance System installed by Total Recall Corporation.”

After being told he was not authorized to write about it, Gallagher said 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.

I’m not keen on journalists being threatened. There is a handy little thing called the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press and free speech. Another such bizarre situation happened last August when the Washington leak police went a bit crazy; they demanded that Wired’s Danger Room take down a document about an imaginary weapon and then divulge the source who provided it.

Regarding our national icon of freedom, liberty and democracy, the Statue of Liberty and the 12-acre Liberty Island were in the direct path of the Hurricane Sandy storm surge. Nearly 75% of Liberty Island was under water. Although the 126-year-old Lady Liberty was not damaged, NPS reported that “the Island’s utilities, backup generator, and power systems were destroyed. The passenger and auxiliary docks were severely damaged and brick pathways have been uprooted around the Island.” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stated, “We’re going to get this done as soon as we possibly can because [the Statue of Liberty is] such an important icon for New York and America.”

Lady Liberty is an important icon. She originally was a “symbol of democratic government and Enlightenment ideals.” She holds a tablet inscribed with the date the Declaration of Independence was signed and she has broken shackles at her feet. NPS stated, “Freedom is not standing still. A symbolic feature that people cannot see is the broken chain wrapped around the Statue’s feet. Protruding from the bottom of her robe, the broken chains symbolize her free forward movement, enlightening the world with her torch free from oppression and servitude.”  

You can take a virtual tour or try out Lady Liberty’s torch web cams that give you virtual access to “a location that has been closed to the public since 1916.” You can visit in person, starting on Independence Day 2013; however, visitors and their belongings are subject to inspection.” For your “safety and security” when visiting this icon of our freedom, you have to pass through the primary security screening, and in some cases, a second security screening. And for goodness sakes, “If you SEE something–SAY something to a US Park Police Officer or National Park Ranger.”

Bruce Schneier once wrote about terrorism being a “crime against our minds” and closing the Washington Monument:

The empty monument would symbolize our war on the unexpected, — our overreaction to anything different or unusual — our harassment of photographers, and our probing of airline passengers. It would symbolize our “show me your papers” society, rife with ID checks and security cameras. As long as we’re willing to sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety, we should keep the Washington Monument empty.

We can reopen the monument when every foiled or failed terrorist plot causes us to praise our security, instead of redoubling it. When the occasional terrorist attack succeeds, as it inevitably will, we accept it, as we accept the murder rate and automobile-related death rate; and redouble our efforts to remain a free and open society.

The Statue of Liberty was closed after 9/11 until the pedestal reopened in 2004. At that time, Secretary Norton said, “Now, more than ever, the Statue of Liberty represents an evolving symbol of freedom, inspiration, and resilience for people all over the world.” The statue reopened in 2009, “with limits on the number of visitors allowed to ascend to the crown. The statue, including the pedestal and base, was closed for a year until October 28, 2012.” When she next reopens, we know there will be video surveillance, possibly with the improved facial recognition software with the capability for racial profiling to “guess ethnicity.” But oh, don’t mention surveillance and facial recognition at America’s icon for liberty, democracy and freedom or else you too may get threatened by the likes of Total Recall.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.