Eyes on the poor: Cameras, facial recognition watch over public housing - The Washington Post

In public housing facilities across America, local officials are installing a new generation of powerful and pervasive surveillance systems, imposing an outsize level of scrutiny on some of the nation’s poorest citizens. Housing agencies have been purchasing the tools — some equipped with facial recognition and other artificial intelligence capabilities — with no guidance or limits on their use, though the risks are poorly understood and little evidence exists that they make communities safer.

In rural Scott County, Va., cameras equipped with facial recognition scan everyone who walks past them, looking for people barred from public housing. In New Bedford, Mass., software is used to search hours of recordings to find any movement near the doorways of residents suspected of violating overnight guest rules. And in tiny Rolette, N.D., public housing officials have installed 107 cameras to watch up to 100 residents — a number of cameras per capita approaching that found in New York’s Rikers Island jail complex.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has helped facilitate the purchase of cameras through federal crime-fighting grants. Those grants are meant to keep residents safer, and housing agencies say they do. But the cameras are also being used to generate evidence to punish and evict public housing residents, sometimes for minor violations of housing rules, according to interviews with residents and legal aid attorneys, a review of court records, and interviews and correspondence with administrators at more than 60 public housing agencies that received the grants in 27 states.

No data is available on how often the cameras are used for this purpose. But the previously unreported practice highlights how efforts to make public housing safer are subjecting many of the 1.6 million Americans who live there — overwhelmingly people of color — to round-the-clock surveillance. If evicted, former tenants can face difficulties finding housing and employment for the rest of their lives.

In an email, HUD spokeswoman Christina Wilkes said the agency never intended its safety and security grants to be used to punish residents for lease violations. But she added that such usage “is not a violation of the grant terms.”

Steubenville police have installed about 100 surveillance cameras across the rest of the town, a city official said, while Stasiulewicz said he monitors 161 cameras in public housing. This means public housing residents — who are nearly three times more likely to be Black than other Steubenville residents, census records show — are about 25 times more likely to have their daily lives observed by government-controlled cameras.

[John Stasiulewicz, in charge of security for Steubenville public housing authority], said he routinely uses the cameras to enforce housing rules, such as to investigate tenants who may be letting in unauthorized guests.

In Steubenville and elsewhere, public housing residents interviewed by The Post said they do worry about the safety of their neighborhoods. Some said they are happy to see more cameras outside their doors. However, many also complain that the surveillance systems “don’t work,” because they see scant evidence the devices help stop or solve crimes.

And some say cameras are being used to punish residents who pose no danger.

Gavin Bates, a legal aid attorney in New Bedford, said the local housing authority’s surveillance system now “regularly appears” in cases where his clients are being evicted. The authority uses this system “to great effect in moving people out,” he added.

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The Guardian

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