I believe I scanned the article at least twice, maybe more times, trying to understand it and failing to. It was a good piece of reporting—the Wall Street Journal had obtained an internal email from New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and was describing what it said—and the individual sentences had meaning. But there was no sense or logic to the underlying story it was recounting.
It was mimetic, really, since the story, and the message, was about cameras at the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge trying and failing to recognize the faces of drivers passing through over it:
the “initial period for the proof of concept testing at the RFK for facial recognition has been completed and failed with no faces (0%) being detected within acceptable parameters.”
Why was New York proof-of-concept testing the concept of scanning and identifying the faces of people who drive on the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge? What was the concept of concept?
“We are testing the technology, and all others that will help us keep New Yorkers safe, while protecting their civil liberties,” said a spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
One should never turn to Andrew Cuomo for honest or reliable information, but how did the words “civil liberties” even appear in that statement?
This went beyond unexamined technophilia and security-state maximalism into dream logic. One should never turn to Andrew Cuomo for honest or reliable information, but how did the words “civil liberties” even appear in that statement? To what could the phrase possibly refer, in a pilot program meant to eventually scan and identify a passing population of 900,000 faces a day, whose only unifying behavior is that they would all be exercising their freedom of movement?
There was not even a coherent excuse for why the state would be trying to do this:
After Mr. Cuomo touted the cameras at bridges and tunnels last July, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said they would be used to help the authority catch scofflaws who tried to avoid tolls by covering up their license plates. But the MTA spokesman, Maxwell Young, said Friday that Mr. Lhota, who stepped down last fall, was incorrect and that the technology is only being used for security.
He added that the MTA takes civil liberties seriously. “Only a small handful” of MTA workers have access to the data collected during the program, Mr. Young said: “Nothing whatsoever is being shared with law enforcement or anyone outside of the people involved with the pilot.”
The final part of that explanation was an anti-explanation, an attempt to change the subject via tautology. The pilot program was not sharing its data broadly because it was a pilot program. If it were to become something more than a pilot program—some actual program—with some purpose beyond establishing whether it worked, then the data would be put to whatever use the program was designed for.
If it had the data, which it did not. The program was doing an indefensible thing, and failing badly at it, and so the state planned to expand the program, as it sat in a state of indeterminacy between being a meaningless boondoggle and being an act of total domination. The unaccountability of government surveillance stood in conflict, or else synergy, with the technology industry’s indifference to outcomes. What was happening hardly mattered, as long as everyone agreed it should keep on happening.