NYCLU Urges City Agency to Reject First-Ever Fingerprint Plan for Subsidized Housing Tenants
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK–In a letter sent today to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the New York Civil Liberties Union urged the agency to reject a proposal to impose a fingerprint identification system for tenants at a subsidized housing complex.
If the plan is approved, the housing complex would become the first in New York City — if not the entire state — to require fingerprint identification of its tenants.
“It would be unfair and irresponsible for the Housing Department to approve a fingerprint identification system for tenants at this time, given the serious privacy concerns raised by this proposal and the troubling lack of information that has been disclosed,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU.
Under the proposal, the thousands of tenants living at Manhattan Plaza — a subsidized housing complex primarily comprised of people in the performing arts — would have full access to their homes only if they provided their fingerprints to Manhattan Plaza management.
“The system would involve the creation of a database of tenant fingerprints which would be vulnerable to serious abuse,” Lieberman added. “The city should not approve such a plan without a careful, detailed assessment of the actual security needs, the anticipated security benefits, the burdens on tenants, and the privacy risks.”
According to Lieberman, the managing agent has not provided any written details of the plan or explained how it will address the serious privacy and safety issues the scheme raises. The agent has claimed that the plan would be voluntary, but it penalizes tenants who refuse to participate.
“Management’s “voluntary” fingerprinting scheme would create two classes of tenants,” the NYCLU said in its letter to the housing agency. “Those who agree to be fingerprinted would have full access to their building through the underground garage and the health club. Those who refuse would lose access to their homes through all but the main entrance, where they would have to wait on line with visitors, tradespeople, and private service employees to be screened by the lone security guard.”
The full text of the NYCLU letter follows.
November 4, 2002
Director of Operations
Housing Preservation and Development
100 Gold St.
NY, NY 100038
Dear Mr. Sloman:
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has received numerous complaints from residents of the federally subsidized Manhattan Plaza apartment complex regarding proposals by the managing agent to implement a new security system that relies on fingerprint identification. I write to urge you to exercise your authority regarding the management of Section 8 apartment buildings and to reject the pending fingerprint identification proposal. We believe it would be unfair and irresponsible to approve a fingerprint-identification system for tenants at this time given the serious privacy concerns raised by this proposal and the troubling lack of information disclosed about the proposal.
Any proposal that would require tenants to surrender their fingerprints as a condition of entry to their homes raises important issues that need to be fully considered. First and foremost, any such system presumably would involve the creation of a database of tenant fingerprints, which in turn could open the door to potential serious abuse. Because such a database could be used for everything from improperly tracking the movement of tenants to identity theft, nothing like this should be created without first assuring that thorough safeguards are in place.
Moreover, in light of the important privacy implications of a tenant fingerprint-entry system, no such system should be approved without careful consideration of a number of other issues: the need; the benefits and risks; anticipated problems, error-rates, and gaps; the availability of other less intrusive and more effective mechanisms for ensuring tenant safety; ongoing maintenance requirements; the policies regarding disclosure of fingerprint information to third parties; and the procedures that will be implemented to provide clear, meaningful safeguards against unauthorized disclosure; and accountability for violations of tenant confidentiality.
Details of the “proposal” are scant. Management has refused to put anything in writing despite repeated requests by the Tenants Association and others and notwithstanding its request for tenant approval.
The management contends that its plan would be “voluntary.” It would be anything but. Management’s “voluntary” fingerprinting scheme would create two classes of tenants. Those who agree to be fingerprinted would have full access to their building through the underground garage and the health club. Those who refuse would lose access to their homes through all but the main entrance where they would have to wait on line with visitors, trades people, and private service employees to be screened by the lone security guard.
Management claims that a fingerprint identification system is necessary to protect the buildings from terrorism. This is a serious concern. However, management has failed to explain how a fingerprint identification system for tenants would achieve that goal, when the buildings are situated atop an underground parking garage and a grocery store and a row of small businesses that are open to the public.
Management has also failed to provide information regarding the reliability or efficacy of fingerprint-entry systems in other residential buildings nor has it disclosed any of the many studies that reveal error rates of from ½% to 5% in this type of technology.
Aquarius management has also displayed little concern for the inevitable inconvenience from the proposed plan. Easily 150 people per day could be expected to lose access through “prints only” entrances as a result of technical errors alone. They would join many others who are unwilling to participate in this undefined “plan.”
Unfortunately Management’s response to the tenants’ many concerns has been “trust us.” Tenants at Manhattan Plaza should not be required to choose between giving up their privacy rights and retaining full access to their homes. Individual privacy is too important to place in the hands of a management that has not addressed tenants’ legitimate concerns about both their safety and privacy and will not put its plan in writing.
The NYCLU therefore urges you to withhold approval for the fingerprint identification proposal for Manhattan Plaza at this time.
Please let me know your response during the next week.
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.
The latest in National Security
The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.
Learn More About National Security
The ACLU’s National Security Project is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices are consistent with the Constitution, civil liberties, and human rights.