Will There Be Face-Recognition Surveillance at the Statue of Liberty?


The National Park Service describes the Statue of Liberty as “a universal symbol of freedom and democracy.” What better place to implement powerful new surveillance systems complete with next-generation facial-recognition technology?

Late last year, Police Product Insight, a trade journal for police and people who sell them products, reported that a New York surveillance-system contractor with the completely you-could-not-make-this-up name of Total Recall Corporation will be installing a cutting-edge facial recognition software program called FaceVACS at the site.

The software sounds powerful — its makers claim that it allows law enforcement to match subjects on camera to a database of photographs “regardless of age, glasses, hats, hairstyle, and facial hair.”

Ryan Gallagher, a reporter who writes for Future Tense, noticed the story, and decided to follow up. His account of what happened next is bizarre, and you should read the whole thing. First, Elke Oberg, the marketing manager for Cognitec, the German manufacturer of FaceVACS, confirmed to Gallagher that “Yes, they are going to try out our technology there.”

Then, Total Recall’s director of business development, Peter Millius, told Gallagher that the facial-recognition project had been put on hold after Sandy-related damage to the site. Millius then put Gallagher on hold, and when he picked up the phone again, he had a different statement altogether: “He told me it was all cancelled, that I had the wrong information, and that I wasn’t authorized to write about it,” Gallagher told the Voice yesterday. Gallagher asked who cancelled the project, and Millius answered that the Park Police had, then told Gallagher he wasn’t authorized to write about it.

Shortly after talking to Milliius, Gallagher got an email from Oberg at Cognitech, directing him not to publish anything about face-recognition technology 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.”

Trying to sort out just what was going on at the Statue of Liberty, Gallagher turned to a National Park service spokesman, who wouldn’t comment on the surveillance system. Greg Norman, the Park Police captain at Liberty Island, told Gallagher “I’m not going to show my hand as far as what security technologies we have.”

Reached today by telephone, a Total Recall employee said that Millius is traveling and unavailable for comment. We’ve emailed Oberg, and will update this post when we hear from her. Linda Friar of the National Park Service told the Voice she could neither confirm nor deny the use of face-recognition technology at Liberty Island: “As a matter of policy, we don’t discuss our security measures.”

Gallagher published his story on Monday, but so far hasn’t heard from any of the parties that threatened legal action if he wrote on the subject. “I’m quite surprised,” he told the Voice mildly yesterday. “I thought I’d be bombarded with more crude threats. Give it another day or two.”