Facial recognition system at airport still not operational | WHEC.com

Facial recognition system at airport still not operational

Jennifer Lewke
Updated: November 16, 2020 06:27 PM
Created: November 16, 2020 01:11 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Taxpayers shelled out nearly $1 million for a state-of-the-art security system at the Frederick Douglass-Greater Rochester International Airport but two years after it was installed, it’s still not operational.

With great fanfare, in October of 2018, the ribbon was cut on an $80 million expansion at the Rochester airport.

“It is beautiful, it is on budget, it is on time,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at the time.  

While it’s beautiful and it was on budget, the project wasn’t completed on time. One of the major upgrades touted by state and county leaders that day, a new facial recognition system, is still not operational.  

Jennifer Lewke (News10NBC): "Is it a technical problem? Is it just that you haven't put the procedures in place or was there some concern about security? Why isn't it live?"

Andy Moore (Airport Director): "I wanted to make sure that all the bugs were worked out and it was at the very best acceptable levels it could be so, that took some time both with the cameras the software and the hardware elements of this."

The bugs have now been worked out but Moore says before he flips the switch, he needs to have written policies and procedures in place for its use.

Moore: "It's not really new (the technology), it's just kind of new here and again I just want to be perfectly clear the airport is not looking to sell this data that we have. We have no interest in that, we've never had any interest in trying to distribute or sell any of the data. We've tried to be as clear as we can on that point."

Lewke: "So, who will see the data, where will it go and what will be done with it?"

Moore: "What we're interested in doing is working with a federal agency like the joint terrorism task force and getting a database provided by them and it's a limited database, it's not a huge massive millions and millions of people database and then we input that into our system and then the facial recognition cameras would sit there and look for those individuals on this joint terrorism task force database."

But the American Civil Liberties Union has concerns about the system as a whole, concerns it has made perfectly clear to the county and the airport director.

“Even if they don’t retain the data at all, it can still lead to dangerous interactions between an officer and the public and it’s really not the place to deploy this technology, particular as the country is reckoning with its history of racial injustice,” said Daniel Schwarz, a Privacy and Technology Strategist for the NYCLU.

And that’s because studies show that black men and women are more likely to be misidentified by the technology.

“In a worst-case scenario it could lead to a really dangerous interaction with law-enforcement or immigration enforcement and more benign cases it might be that people will miss their flights or are interrogated more aggressively by an officer,” Schwarz added.

Facial recognition technology is used in most major airports already, particularly at the international gates, where a passenger knowingly allows his/her face to be scanned as part of the boarding process. The NYCLU says in those cases, passengers have a right to opt-out. Here in Rochester, all faces would be scanned.  

A number of passengers News10NBC spoke with at the Rochester airport said, generally they don’t have a problem with the technology, but they also don’t have a problem with Moore taking his time to make sure it’s working properly.

“That's a technology that is probably getting better, I don't think they're just going to totally misidentify anyone but that could happen with anybody so, my thing is that everything gets better with time, everything has a little glitch once in a while but they make it better,” said Frank Outing of Rochester.  

Elizabeth Smiley, also of Rochester, agrees saying, “I think it's a good idea just make sure you get the right people you know.”  

For Dawn Ortega, it comes down to safety.

“It makes flying safer and it makes me feel a little bit more confident and comfortable flying,” she said.  

The system came with a nearly $1 million price tag. As both passengers and taxpayers Outing, Smiley and Ortega say they want to see it actually used.

“They are invested in it already, make it happen,” Ortega said.

So, when might it happen?

Lewke: "Is there a timetable?"

Moore: "I'm not putting a timetable on it at this point."

As far as whether the system would even operate properly while facemasks are required to be worn at the airport, Moore didn’t want to elaborate.

“I don’t want to get into details regarding facemasks and jeopardize disclosing our security posture or capabilities at the airport,” Moore said.

The airport is also supposed to have “object left-behind” technology which detects abandoned objects in specified sizes like boxes, luggage, and backpacks and alerts security.  Moore says that the system is currently off-line too and he does not have a date when it will go live.

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