Casino Developers Want to Fill Times Square With Surveillance Drones

Casino Developers Want to Fill Times Square With Surveillance Drones

There’s great news if you’re a fan of gambling and flying, spying robots.

Times Square, fifth circle of hell and home of the world’s dumbest ads, could be the site of New York City’s next casino. Caesars Entertainment has teamed up with developer SL Green Realty Corporation in a bid for a casino licence, and they’re trying to sweeten the pot with a proposal that is going to drive you wild if you hate privacy.

According to a document obtained by the New York Times:

In their letter seeking support for the casino, SL Green and Caesars said that gambling revenues could be used to more than double the number of “public safety officers” in Times Square and to deploy surveillance drones.

The letter said a new casino would result in more than 50 new artificial intelligence camera systems “strategically placed throughout Times Square, each capable of monitoring 85,000+ people per day.”

A new gambling house could have a huge economic impact on Times Square and the city at large. Tourists and New Yorkers have been slow to return to the area after the pandemic, thanks in part to a recent panic over rising crime rates. The truth is crime rates have gone up percentage-wise, but they’re still at historic lows. And no matter the facts about crime, the experts who spoke to Gizmodo said one thing is clear: increasing surveillance is a bad solution.

“At a time when our cars, subway rides, and busses are more monitored than ever, adding a new fleet of drones and AI cameras will rob us of the right to even walk down the street untracked,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). “The system will waste money, be ripe for abuse, and it won’t do a thing about the real drivers of crime.”

SL Green spokesperson Jack Lynch told Gizmodo the company is working closely with the community and former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who reportedly helped develop the plan, “to find the best package of solutions to make Times Square safer for everyone.” Caesars Entertainment didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Let’s take a look at the facts. There was a big spike in homicides in New York City during the pandemic. Some were particularly disturbing, including a mass shooting on the subway last April. But according to Bloomberg News, the murder rate fell lower than it has been in decades prior to the pandemic, and today, the number of homicides about the same as it was in 2009. In the dark days of New York’s 1970s and ‘80s, the homicide rate was five times higher than it is now.

So why have we been hearing so much about crime in the Big Apple? It’s because the news has been hyping it up. Bloomberg’s analysis shows that the number of times the media mentioned New York shootings in the last few years is totally unrelated to the actual number of shootings. There’s an old saying in journalism, “if it bleeds it leads,” and reporters and talking heads have clearly been taking that to heart.

Of course, the public isn’t digging through crime stats, they’re hearing the headlines and getting justifiably freaked out. Right on cue, political figures are jumping on the chance to show they’re tough on crime, and surveillance gets trotted out as a solution. New York Governor Kathy Hochul, announcing the rollout of more cameras on the NYC subway system, said recently, “You think Big Brother is watching you on the subway? You’re absolutely right. That is our intent.”

“The very worst time to introduce new surveillance tools like drones that will have profound and lasting impacts on privacy and justice is when people are worried about their safety,” said Evan Selinger, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies surveillance technology. We should be asking, according Selinger, “whether the proposal is security theatre that promotes a false sense of safety while creating dangerous infrastructure that in all likelihood will be abused.”

Surveillance is often framed as a tradeoff between safety and privacy, but it doesn’t necessarily even help with crime. For example, there were cameras around during last April’s mass shooting on the subway, but they didn’t help catch the suspect, nor did the cops. He turned himself in a day later.

What surveillance does do is have a disproportionately negative effect on communities of colour and other marginalised groups. The casino moguls’ proposed “artificial intelligence” camera systems is in all likelihood a fancy way to say facial recognition. Numerous research projects show that facial recognition tools harbour serious biases, and they’re far worse at recognising people with darker skin, women, and young people.

We’ve already seen this problem’s potential to ruin people’s lives. Facial recognition has led to several false arrests and even imprisonment for Black men over crimes they had nothing to do with.

The views of people advocating the surveillance drones “are saturated with, and shrouded by, the techno-fallacies of the information age,” said Gary T. Marx, professor emeritus of sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Surveillance cameras always raise a number of troubling issues, including who gets to access the data and how it’s stored, the reliability of the information, and basic questions about how effective they are.

Marc Holliday, the chief executive of SL Green, told the New York Times that New Yorkers have a responsibility to protect the streets. “It’s incumbent on us to keep making sure Times Square is keeping up with the times, and doesn’t go back to what I’ll call the bad old days of the ’70s or the early ’90s,” Holliday said. “And we all remember what that was like, when it comes to crime, and, you know, open drug use.” But Holliday is simultaneously advocating for a giant new hub for drinking and gambling. Either you want a den of iniquity and vice or you don’t, Mr. Holliday. Pick one.

Increased surveillance doesn’t just harm marginalised communities, it has a chilling effect on free expression. People behave differently when they know they’re being watched, and if the plan goes the wrong way, it could change the tenor of the whole area, which represents New York City to millions of visitors, however much New Yorkers might be loathe to go there.

“If the city makes this high-stakes bet on casino surveillance, I worry they’ll gamble away the future of our public streets,” said Fox Cahn of STOP. “For generations, New Yorkers have used Times Square to protest injustice and march for a better future, but this plan will give us a techno dystopian nightmare instead.”