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Brooklyn Landlord Does An About Face On Facial Recognition Plan


A Brooklyn landlord whose efforts to install a facial recognition system spurred tenant protests and stoked fears over the increasing encroachment of biometric technology in residential dwellings has announced that he is no longer pursuing the plan.

On Tuesday, Robert Nelson, the president of Nelson Management Group, delivered the news himself to tenants of Atlantic Plaza Towers, a rent-stabilized 700-unit development his company owns in Brownsville, during a town hall. The meeting was intended to be a conversation between tenants and representatives from elected officials who have introduced legislation to regulate facial recognition and similar technologies.

No one expected Nelson to attend, much less say that he would reverse course.

“Most tenants have never seen Nelson before,” said Tranae Moran, one of the residents at the meeting. “It was a huge shock to a lot of tenants, myself included.”

The following day, Nelson issued a formal statement saying that the company had decided to withdraw its application with the state to put in facial recognition at Atlantic Plaza Towers. By law, Nelson had been required to seek permission from the state’s Homes and Community Renewal (HCR) agency, which oversees rent-regulated properties, because facial recognition constitutes a change in service. “I appreciate feedback from residents and stakeholders throughout this process, and look forward to continued progress on upgrades at Atlantic Plaza Towers,” Nelson said in the statement.

Another tenant, Fabian Rogers, called the announcement a “great half step.”

Referring to pending legislation, the most far-reaching of which is a state bill that would ban the use of facial recognition in residential dwellings, he added, “But truly, it’s just the first step.”

Samar Katnani, the attorney at Brooklyn Legal Services, which has represented the tenants, agreed. “This is definitely a battle won but the war is still looming,” she told Gothamist.

Controversy over the issue began earlier this year when Atlantic Plaza tenants expressed alarm after learning that Nelson had submitted an application to install the technology back in July 2018. Brooklyn Legal Services drafted a letter of protest on the tenants behalf, noting that the majority of tenants at Atlantic Plaza were black and that studies have shown that facial recognition technology disproportionately impacts people of color.

Katnani argued that surveillance technologies amounted to a form of tenant harassment, designed to evict rent-stabilized residents. Last month, CNET reported on the sales pitch of a smart home security company called Teman GateGuard that said it could enable landlords to photograph visitors as a way of catching illegal subletting.

Tenants also said the system was an extreme invasion of privacy.

“We don’t want to be tracked,” Icemae Downes, a longtime tenant told Gothamist at the time. “We are not animals. This is like tagging us through our faces because they can’t implant us with a chip.”

Nelson responded by saying that the sole goal of the system was to enhance the security of the building.

But tenants at Atlantic Plaza balked at that reason, citing the presence of cameras throughout the buildings that are sometimes used to catch tenants committing what they said were minor infractions.

“We’re pretty much surveilled on a 24 hour basis,” Rogers said.

The issue sparked wider awareness of the growing use of facial recognition or other “frictionless” biometric technologies. According to Katnani, there is little legal precedent for regulating facial recognition technology in residential buildings.

In May, San Francisco became the first major American city to prohibit the use of facial recognition by public agencies, including the police.

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