New York City transit officials are exploring a controversial plan to use artificial intelligence software to track how many subway commuters wear face masks and where.
The technology, which is currently being used in Paris, was among a number of ideas put forward in a consultant report released Monday that could help traffic authorities measure the level of compliance with the face mask at metro stations. specific. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in May, the 41-page document details best practices for transit systems worldwide to combat the spread of COVID-19. The list includes several high-tech tools such as temperature checks from the thermal scanner, which has been adopted in Canada and Singapore, as well as UV lamps and robots that China has deployed on buses to kill viruses on surfaces.
“We are exploring the feasibility of a wide range of tools and approaches to help keep our employees and customers safe,” Andrei Berman, an MTA spokesman, said in a statement. “AI is one of those tools and we will continue to investigate whether it could be effective and, if so, how it could be appropriately implemented to continue to ensure that best public health practices are followed for the safety of our customers and employees.”
Given its potential to be armed, the use of artificial intelligence to scan images of drivers at subway stations is likely to reignite a battle over privacy and transparency. But the latest AI debate is more complicated as New Yorkers struggle to resume their lives in the shadow of a pandemic that killed more than 22,000 New York City residents.
“We have to juggle legitimate privacy concerns and concerns about public safety and public health,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the three-state Transportation Campaign.
According to a recent report produced by the group, Paris, Tokyo and Vienna have seen a high level of facial mask compliance among cyclists. At the same time, there have been no outbreaks in those cities linked to public transportation. According to Sifuentes, the evidence suggests that the MTA needs to prioritize applying the mask over possibly the most expensive and unreliable technology such as temperature scans.
“The goal is 100% compliance with the mask,” he said, adding: “The public health threat you pose is certainly much greater than the privacy threat as a non-compliant individual.”
The Tri-State Transportation Campaign report recommends that the MTA use its current CCTV system to manually track passenger mask usage, but Sifuentes said installing the AI software would likely be more cost-effective.
Supporters say the MTA could address privacy concerns using anonymous data, in which personally identifiable information is removed. Such is the case in the Paris metro system, where the software is not used to punish individual passengers, but to collect data that will help city officials anticipate future outbreaks. The technology can also be used to measure the level of mask use at specific locations, allowing traffic officials to direct resources to stations with low compliance.
“The goal is simply to publish statistics on how many people wear masks every day,” Xavier Fischer, CEO of the French software system maker DatakaLab, told Verge. “We never sell for security reasons.”
Tensions have arisen over surveillance with other coronavirus technologies, especially digital tracking applications that have been used in countries such as China and South Korea to monitor infected people and track their contacts. However, the fact that the French, who have strong notions of civil liberties, have accepted a system based on artificial intelligence, has indicated to some that there may be an acceptable form of surveillance in the service of public protection.
But critics of surveillance remain skeptical.
In 2019, the MTA acknowledged in a Wall Street Journal story that it was running a pilot program to record and identify the faces of drivers driving across the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, whose initial efforts were unsuccessful. A spokesperson said the data was only being used for security.
“The MTA really does have a confidence gap here,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and CEO of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), a nonprofit advocacy group that has fought for city agencies to reveal how they are using facial recognition.
STOP recently sued the MTA for its refusal to provide information on a video monitor installed in Times Square to prevent fee evasion. MTA officials said the camera was not using facial recognition technology, but Cahn demanded to see internal agency documents on the camera’s installation. In May, a state Supreme Court judge ruled that the agency had wrongly denied his Freedom of Information Act request without explanation.
Cahn warned that the use of surveillance technology would lead to a predictable result: more police encounters, as well as unnecessary arrests and violence. He noted how NYPD was using MTA cameras to locate and eliminate homeless people in subway stations.
“Excessive surveillance is a matter of life and death,” he said. “I am terrified that we will see riders of color chosen by AI and arrested for not wearing masks.”
At first, the city’s data showed large racial disparities in social distancing and police policing of New Yorkers. In mid-May, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York police would no longer enforce the facial mask rule after a video of a Brooklyn mother handcuffed at a subway station for allegedly not wearing her mask go viral.
Danny Pearlstein, director of policy and communications for advocacy group Riders Alliance, was concerned that the use of artificial intelligence software would only make passengers feel “less welcome, less inclusive and ultimately less secure.”
He also argued that an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers actually adopted face masks, which the data confirmed. Over the past week, the New York City coronavirus positivity rate has held steady at two percent.
But the challenge for the MTA will be managing an increasing number of public transit users as the city continues to reopen. Metro subway numbers exceeded one million on Tuesday, June 23, an increase of more than 150 percent since April. Before the pandemic, the number of passengers on the subway during the week was around 5.5 million.
Not surprisingly, MTA officials have emphasized the use of masks for social estrangement.
“The key will be mask surveillance,” Sarah Feinberg, acting director of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said recently in an interview. Earlier this month, in response to a request from the additional police agency, the mayor deployed 800 school security officers to distribute masks at subway stations.
However, Pearlstein has urged the MTA to further explore other solutions, such as increasing the frequency of service, especially during off-peak hours.
In terms of safety and stress relief, he said, giving passengers even a little more room to breathe would be better than resorting to surveillance technology.
Ultimately, he argued, “Using machines that can profile bikers will make people feel less comfortable than giving them an extra six inches at the elbow.”