Made in America

Facial Recognition Used to Evict Single Mother for Taking Night Classes

"They really made my life hell."

 by Maggie Harrison Dupré
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Image by Getty Images

Local officials across the US are using surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology to "punish and evict public housing residents" — often for minor or even trivial offenses — The Washington Post reports.

Per the paper's reporting, the cameras have overwhelmingly been purchased through US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) crime-fighting grants under the narrative that heavy surveillance makes housing projects safer. According to WaPo, however, "few" of the law enforcement agencies that were contacted for the report were able to substantiate a link to lowered crime.

Instead, the widespread implementation of this surveillance technology in public housing has mostly resulted in the overzealous monitoring — and policing — of the minutiae of poor Americans' daily lives. And for some folks, the consequences have been dire.

"It got to the point where it was like harassment," 33-year-old single mother Tania Acabou, who was evicted from a surveillance-happy New Bedford, Massachusetts project for a comically trivial offense back in 2021, told WaPo.

Per WaPo, surveillance footage bolstered the New Bedford housing authority's eviction claim that Acabou had broken a policy regarding how often a guest could visit overnight; the guest in question was her ex-husband, who Acabou says was there babysitting their shared child while she, a bus driver by day, was attending night classes to become a lab tech.

"They really made my life hell," she added.

But despite WaPo's finding that there's little to no evidence to support that the tech effectively deters crime, the folks in charge of the projects seem convinced otherwise.

"I am one of the arms of the police department," John Stasiulewicz, a former police detective who runs security for a public housing authority in Steubenville, Ohio, told WaPo. "I give them information and they act on it."

In Steubenville, the disparity between cameras in housing projects and the rest of the town is staggering. Area police told WaPo that they've installed 100 cameras throughout the town; Stasiulewicz, meanwhile, claims to monitor 161 cameras in public housing alone.

By WaPo's math, that means that public housing inhabitants, who according to census records are three times more likely to be Black than other Steubenville residents, are "25 times more likely to have their daily lives observed by government-controlled cameras."

In some places, public housing residents have reportedly been subjected to surveillance levels comparable to those seen at New York's Riker's Island prison. That's an alarming statistic, especially considering that automated surveillance tech, including facial recognition software — which is used in Steubenville — is already notorious for being biased against Black folks and other marginalized groups.

On that note, it's worth mentioning that the efficacy of Steubenville's preferred camera vendor is dubious at best.

"The cameras in Steubenville and Scott County were made by Verkada, a Silicon Valley start-up whose entry-level package — starting at less than $1,200 for a single camera and a one-year software subscription — comes preloaded with facial recognition," reads the WaPo report, explaining that when surveillance industry researcher IPVM tested a Verkada camera's efficacy earlier this year, the results were extremely poor.

According to WaPo, when a subject's face was clear, about 15 percent of Verkada matches were still wrong. When someone was wearing a mask, or was simply seen at an angle, that 15 percent figure shot up to 85 percentIn a word: yikes.

If there's any bright spot, in a public notice published in April of this year, the HUD banned the implementation of "automated surveillance and facial recognition technology" in public housing.

Still, based on the report, some local housing officials seem less than inclined to do much reflection on the undue harms that supercharged surveillance may have caused.

"People choose to get evicted by their actions," Melody McClurg, the executive director at the Steubenville housing authority, told WaPo.

"Number one," she continuted, "we are a landlord."

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