Rumored Statue of Liberty face-recognition supplier harasses and threatens journalist

Slate's Ryan Gallagher caught wind of a new face recognition software being rolled out at the Statue of Liberty. He interviewed a rep from Total Recall, who were reported to be representing Cognitec, the German company whose product, FaceVACS was going in on Liberty Island. Halfway through the interview, Total Recall's director of business development Peter Millius terminated the call, saying that the project was on hold, or possibly cancelled, "vetoed" by the Park Police.

Then it got weird. Cognitec and its lawyers began to barrage Gallagher with emails and letters warning him that if he wrote about this, they'd sue him. When he asked Total Recall for clarification, they threatened to sue him, personally, for harassment. The National Park Service didn't have much to say about the bid, saying "I'm not going to show my hand as far as what security technologies we have." Go, security-through-obscurity! Hurrah for spending tax dollars without any transparency!

Gallagher reported the whole story, including the threats. Whatever merits or demerits Total Recall and Cognitec have as companies, turning into weird, opaque legal-threat-generating machines in the middle of an interview and harassing and intimidating journalists sounds like the kind of thing that should disqualify them from getting any of the American public's money.

“We do work with Cognitec, but right now because of what happened with Sandy it put a lot of different pilots that we are doing on hold,” Peter Millius, Total Recall’s director of business development, said in a phone call. “It’s still months away, and the facial recognition right now is not going to be part of this phase.” Then, he put me hold and came back a few minutes later with a different position—insisting that the face-recognition project had in fact been “vetoed” by the Park Police and adding that I was “not authorized” to write about it.

That was weird, but it soon got weirder. About an hour after I spoke with Total Recall, an email from Cognitec landed in my inbox. It was from the company’s marketing manager, Elke Oberg, who had just one day earlier told me in a phone interview that “yes, they are going to try out our technology there” in response to questions about a face-recognition pilot at the statue. Now, Oberg had sent a letter ordering me to “refrain from publishing any information about the use of face recognition 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.

Lady Liberty’s Watching You (via Reddit)

(Image: Statue of Liberty Paris, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from francehousehunt's photostream)

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  1. Why the hell do we need Statue of Liberty face-recognition? Everybody already knows what it looks like.

  2. Oh… Me thinks that Total Recall (no, not eerie at all) and/or Cognitec were under some sort of order or non-disclosure agreement regarding the use of facial recognition technology at the Statue. I’ll speculate even further and say that their counsel was listening into the call and quietly shat bricks when it was mentioned. He/she then ran into the other room and scribbled a note to Mr. Millius. Everything since then has been them trying to climb their way out of a hole they dug.

    Somebody should ask if they’ve ever heard of the Streisand Effect.

    1. I think/hope it’s more that they realized facial recognition was a failure in Boston a couple weeks ago and, “OSHIT, people might realize this crap never works.”

  3. FaceVACS? So visiting national landmarks will soon require getting your face sucked? Sheesh.

  4. If the education system is getting so bad, hell, you can pay me to recognize The Statue of Liberty’s face for them.

  5. Halfway through the interview, Total Recall’s director of business development Peter Millius terminated the call, saying that the project was on hold, or possibly cancelled, “vetoed” by the Park Police.

    Then it got weird.

    Looks like we got ourselves another schizoid embolism!

      1. Imagine Pee-wee prolonging the pain: [Twin of 1st guy shows up in response to new ad – same deal, guy has no arms, rings bell with face – meets same fate as the first guy] “Who was he?” “I don’t know, but he’s a dead ringer for the first one!”

  6. On the upside, if you buy in bulk from Total Recall, they can remember it for you wholesale.

  7. [..] a new face recognition software being rolled out at the Statue of Liberty.

    I think my ironymeter just melted.

  8. I’m not the only one disappointed that the technology isn’t supposed to identify the Statue of Liberty.

  9. Yes; telling a reporter that they are not authorized to write about something and then threatening to sue ALWAYS works.

  10. If you ask someone about their security stuff and they refuse to tell you about it, that’s not really “security-through-obscurity”. That’s just them not telling you, and you have no way of knowing if their security is great or crap.

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