Lady Liberty's Watching You: The Full Correspondence

Monday, 6 May 2013

Below is the full bizarre correspondence between myself and two companies, Cognitec and Total Recall Corporation, which was the subject of a recent article I wrote for Slate magazine called "Lady Liberty's Watching You."

As you will see, it started out with me following up a tip about new face recognition technology being piloted at the Statue of Liberty, and ended with me getting sent legal threats warning me not to write about it. A number of outlets followed up the story, including BoingBoing, the Village Voice, and Techdirt.

The correspondence — which consists of both phone interviews and emails listed in chronological order — has not been edited apart from a couple of typo fixes and the removal of email introductions and signatures ("hi there," "best regards," etc.) to avoid unnecessary repetition. I am publishing the correspondence in full not only because doing so is in the interest of transparency, but because I feel that it can serve as an educational example — helping inform about the sort of crass, outrageous intimidation attempts journalists occasionally face when attempting to go about their work. Receiving crude threats is unfortunately sometimes part of the job, but never should we back down.

*****
PHONE CALL
Ryan Gallagher
Elke Oberg [Cognitec]
19 March 2013 13:36pm
Contemporaneous note

I ask for more information about pilot of Cognitec face recognition at Statue of Liberty.

Oberg says: "We were doing this through an integrator [Total Recall Corporation]. So what usually happens is our software, we give it to a company that actually integrates it into a real-world application. I am not really the best person to tell you about what's happening with this project, because that's really more [for] the company that is doing the actual project. I mean, yes, they are going to try out our technology there. But as to the status, and how it's going, I am not the best person to answer those questions for you."

She adds: "I knew this project was going on but hadn't really checked up on it."

She describes what the technology can be used for: "facial analysis to determine how many people have gone through the checkpoints, how many are male, how many are female... we do have ethnicity detection as well but obviously not that accurate for person of mixed ethnicity. But you can also use it for people flow if you see a certain entrance or certain choke point there are too many people gathering you can open another entrance put more staff on etc. It can give a rough estimate of age... age ranges within five years of actual birth date, it is quite accurate.

She says the demographics capability was relevant to the Statue of Liberty pilot: "I'm certain that they are interested in that part."

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: [Total Recall Corp. secretary] Viktoriya

19 March 2013 15:31

I spoke to you on the phone a moment ago. I am a journalist with Slate.com.

I'm doing a story on facial recognition technology in New York and was hoping you could give me an update on the status of a pilot I understand Total Recall is running at the Statue of Liberty with software made by a company called Cognitec.

Is the pilot still going ahead once the Statue of Liberty reopens? How long is the pilot expected to last?

If you could send me some information on this asap it'd be greatly appreciated.

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: [Total Recall Corp. secretary] Viktoriya

20 March 2013 13:18

Hi Viktoriya, just wondering if you have managed to get me answers to my questions?

Thanks

*****

From: [Total Recall Corp. director of business development] Peter Millius
To: Ryan Gallagher
20 March 2013 14:06

Ryan,

Where did you get this information?

Please call me to discuss

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Peter Millius

20 March 2013 14:10

Hi Peter, calling now.

*****

PHONE CALL
Ryan Gallagher
Peter Millius
20 March 2013 14:19
Contemporaneous note

Millius asks where I heard about the pilot. I explain that I received a tip, had read about it in a police magazine, and that I had also spoken with Cognitec about it.

He says: "At this time there is not going to be a pilot project of the facial recognition at the Statue of Liberty although if it was it would be with Cognitec. We do work with Cognitec but right now because of what happened with [Hurricane] Sandy it put a lot of different pilots that we are doing on hold.

"There are no plans put something in right now. There are a lot of other things that need to get fixed. And they said that once we get all that stuff up we can start talking about that again. But nothing to talk about right now.

"Total recall is doing a security program at the Statue of Liberty. However, if you'd like to do a story about it I could talk to you about it more in detail when we want to do a full press release and so on and so forth.

"It's still months away and the facial recognition right now is not going to be part of this phase.

"We're in the middle of trying to work out what's going to get installed and what's not going to get installed.

"The timing is just premature."

[Millius then puts me on hold. He returns a minute or two later and puts me on speakerphone. One of his colleagues joins the call but does not introduce himself.]

Millius now says that the company had "discussed the possibility of it [a face recognition pilot] and it's been completely vetoed."

I ask, vetoed by who? He says the "Park Police."

I ask why it was vetoed and he says I should contact the Park Police. He declines to answer specific further questions and adds that I am "not authorized" to write about any use of face recognition at the statue.

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Elke Oberg [Cognitec]

20 March 2013 15:20

I have a couple more questions for you regarding the Statue of Liberty project. Do you think you could put me in touch with the person at Cognetic who knows most about this contract? Thanks.

*****

From: Elke Oberg
To: Ryan Gallagher

20 March 2013 15:23

LETTER ATTACHED.

Please consider this a written confirmation that you are to refrain from publishing any information about the use of face recognition at the Statue of Liberty. As you learned from Total Recall, the project was cancelled and you have false information.

If you decide to publish the information, we will need to take legal action to demand an official correction statement.

We appreciate your professionalism and integrity.

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Elke Oberg

20 March 2013 15:28

This is quite confusing. You told me yesterday that they were going to be trying out the Cognitec software at the statue. When and why was the project cancelled?

*****

From: Elke Oberg
To: Ryan Gallagher

20 March 2013 15:33

I asked you that I did not have any current information and that you need to talk to Total Recall about the status of this project. They told you and confirmed to me that the project is not happening. The City of New York has not approved it.

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Elke Oberg

20 March 2013 15:35

So the software is not going to be used because the City of New York has not given it approval?

You said yesterday, and I quote: "Yes, they are going to try out our technology there."

*****

From: Elke Oberg
To: Ryan Gallagher

20 March 2013 15:40

Again, I do not have any exact information about this. I thought you spoke to Total Recall about it?

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Elke Oberg

20 March 2013 15:42

I have spoken with Total Recall, yes, but I am trying to verify what they are saying. It is all very confusing and I have been provided contradictory information from different sources.

*****

From: Elke Oberg
To: Ryan Gallagher

20 March 2013 15:51

There seems enough confusion to leave the subject out of your article.

*****

From: Elke Oberg
To: Ryan Gallagher

20 March 2013 15:51

Quite the contrary, the confusion and people threatening me with legal action only encourages me to keep digging and establish the facts.

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Peter Millius

20 March 2013 16:52

Hi Peter,

A follow-up question for you. I have been back in touch with Cognitec and they are now saying that the facial recognition pilot project at the Statue of Liberty was "cancelled" because "the City of New York has not approved it."

Is that correct?

*****

From: Peter Millius
To: Ryan Gallagher

20 March 2013 17:04

LETTER ATTACHED.

Please consider this a written confirmation that you are to refrain from publishing any information about Total Recall and the Statue of Liberty or the use of face recognition at the Statue of Liberty. As you learned from Total Recall, the project was cancelled and you have false information.

If you decide to publish the information, we will need to take legal action to demand an official correction statement.

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Peter Millius

20 March 2013 17:10

Thanks for the interesting note, Peter. Who was the project cancelled by? You mentioned in our phone call that it had been "vetoed" by the Park Police, and Cognitec told me that "the City of New York has not approved it." Which of these statements is correct? If you could help clarify it'd be much appreciated.

*****

From: Peter Millius
To: Ryan Gallagher
CC: Attorney from Greenberg Traurig law firm.

20 March 2013 18:01

As I have previously told you- I have no comment and please be advised that we will take legal action against you personally and your company if you continue to harass me or chose to publish anything

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Peter Millius

20 March 2013 18:09

I am merely asking questions, Peter, legitimate questions. That is my job. I am a journalist. But If you have no further comment then I shall send no more inquiries. Thanks for your time.

*****

PHONE CALL
Ryan Gallagher
Elke Oberg [Cognitec]
22 March 2013 2:26pm
Contemporaneous note; summary of call

RG: I'm just trying to establish some of the details around why the project was cancelled, as you're saying.

Oberg: "I have no idea, Ryan, I really don't know. All I know is it's cancelled and that's the end of it... I have no information on it."

You did say the other day that they were 'going to try out our technology there.' So I'm just trying to establish what changed and why.

"Yes, not on that particular project, though, that particular project I don't know anything about. They informed us it was cancelled and I don't know any more than that."

You said you were aware it was going ahead at the statue.

"No, I did not say that. I don't know if it was scheduled."

Why did you tell me then, 'yes they're going to try out our technology there'?

"I don't think I said that."

Yes, you did.

"Then I must have made a mistake. I don't know anything about this project."

So you've never had any knowledge of this being tested at the Statue of Liberty, is that true?

"No, I don't. As I said, you need to ask the contractor."

*****

From: Ryan Gallagher
To: Peter Millius

28 March 2013 18:03

Mr. Millius,

I'm hoping you might have had a chance to reflect since our correspondence last week. I thought I would give you a final opportunity to talk with me — on record or off — about the reasons for the cancellation of the face recognition project at the Statue of Liberty. I am going to be writing about it based on information from a variety of sources. As things stand, your attempt to prevent me from reporting on the project will be a central focus of the story. But, of course, it doesn't have to be that way, and if you would like to discuss the project and the reasons for its cancellation then I would be happy to make time at your convenience for a phone call.

*****

Millius never responded to my final attempt to clarify details around the claimed cancellation of the Statue of Liberty face recognition project. The full article based on the above correspondence can be found at Slate.

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