New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority cancelled its test of security cameras in subway cars after it was revealed that the manufacturer has links to the Chinese government and specializes in facial recognition technology.
The MTA installed four cameras produced by Suzhou Huaqi Intelligent Technology on a G train last week. The Daily News reports that the MTA planned to run those cameras for a year. It’s worth noting that the cameras already in use in stations and on platforms were not sourced from Suzhou Huaqi Intelligent Technology, according to the transit agency.
The MTA struck a deal with the manufacturer to trial the cameras, at no cost, in January of 2019. According to the Daily News, a short time later the maker was acquired by another Chinese firm, Beijing Infrastructure Investment.
BII reportedly develops facial recognition systems and has ties to the Chinese state. An S&P Global note on the company from 2016 stated “the government has very tight control over the company’s strategy, operations and management appointments.”
MTA executives were evidently never made aware of the pilot program, and placement of the cameras didn’t even have to go to a board vote first. Once the higher-ups became aware, and once the MTA discovered the nature of Suzhou Huaqi’s ownership, it called off the plan. From the Daily News:
MTA spokesman Ken Lovett said transit honchos were not aware of the test cameras until The News began asking questions about Bii Railway on Wednesday.
“This short-term test and evaluation was designed to determine whether the equipment would meet New York City Transit requirements to qualify as a potential approved system for future subway car procurements,” said Lovett.
“Once leadership became aware of the test program, and questions were raised about control of this particular company, we ended the evaluation.”
The MTA said in an April 21 news conference that it wasn’t using facial recognition on any of the cameras. The Daily News says it was unable to determine if the Chinese companies involved “were subject to active inquiries by national security authorities.”
While the MTA may not have known about BII’s future acquisition of Suzhou Huaqi at the time it agreed to put the company’s cameras in subway cars, it’s nevertheless surprising all of this slipped by for more than a year afterward.
Chinese tech firms are under intense scrutiny from U.S. government officials these days, even in situations where the allegations of spying are tenuous at best. Like in the case of TV maker TCL, who former Department of Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf brazenly accused of incorporating “backdoors into all of its TV sets exposing users to cyber breaches and data exfiltration” in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in December. TCL later rebutted that claim.
While the MTA may have called off this trial run, the transit agency is still big into surveillance these days. Perhaps it ought to be a bit more careful about where it sources its equipment from. We’ve reached out to the MTA to find out whether it intends to find a different supplier, though as of late Friday we hadn’t heard back.
Update April 27, 2021 10:55 a.m. ET: The MTA responded to Jalopnik with further clarification that the cameras were only being tested, not installed permanently. Shams Tarek, MTA Deputy Communications Director, provided the following statement:
We decided to end the testing and evaluation late Wednesday afternoon, not Thursday. Also, to be clear, they were a prospective vendor. The idea was to test and evaluate their equipment to see whether they could meet New York City Transit requirements to qualify as a potential approved system for future subway car procurements. They were not installed permanently, but only as a test.
Additionally, the contract was negotiated by the previous New York City Transit administration, which may explain why some personnel were aware of the program while others were not. Installation had been delayed until this month due to COVID-19. While testing of these cameras had been “discontinued effective immediately” as of last week, the MTA could not confirm whether it is working to find another supplier upon our inquiry.