Day 6

How a park-strolling Manhattan optometrist became an unwitting guinea pig in a facial recognition experiment

San Francisco banned facial recognition technology this week, but it's still unregulated across much of Canada and the U.S. — as optometrist Richard Madonna discovered when he was unwittingly surveilled and identified while walking through a public park earlier this year.

The New York Times used inexpensive 'plug-and-play' facial recognition software to identify Richard Madonna

Earlier this year, Dr. Richard Madonna got an unexpected call from the New York Times saying he'd been identified in a facial recognition experiment. (Submitted by Richard Madonna)

Originally published May 17, 2019.

Dr. Richard Madonna knew there were cameras in the park near his office.

"If you're in the park enough and just look around, you could spot them," he told CBC's Day 6.

Still, surveillance was the last thing on Madonna's mind when he strolled across Manhattan's Bryant Park on his way to get lunch on March 12.

But about a week later, he got an unexpected call from the New York Times — asking him if he'd been in the park that afternoon around 1pm.

"That day, now, will probably be etched in my memory forever."

Plug-and-play surveillance

As it turned out, Madonna had unknowingly been caught up in a facial recognition surveillance experiment by the New York Times.

Sahil Chinoy, a graphics editor with the news outlet, was testing the accuracy of Amazon's Rekognition software, which is freely available to anyone with a credit card and cost the Times about $60 US.

As part of the experiment, Chinoy created an image database of people who worked near Bryant Park by mining local businesses' websites for employee headshots — including Madonna's.

Then he ran that database against publicly-available footage from the cameras in Bryant Park.

The software pulled up an 89 per cent match for a professorial man caught midstroll: Dr. Richard Madonna.

Chinoy called the professor to share the findings.

"I sent him the image that the camera had picked up and he wrote me back and said, 'Yep, that's me,'" Chinoy recalled.

"I don't know if I was creeped out, although when I wrote back to him I did say, 'Send what you got, big brother,'" Madonna told Day 6.

On Tuesday, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and government agencies, following a 8-11 vote by the city's board of supervisors.

In Canada, there are still very few regulations in place. Shopping malls in Toronto and Calgary have admitted to using the technology. That could make public spaces — and those who use them — even more public.

Click 'Listen' above to hear Sahil Chinoy and Richard Madonna tell their story.