Image for article titled NYC ends test of subway camera after learning of vendor's link to Chinese government, facial recognition work

Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York canceled its test of safety cameras in subway cars after it was revealed the manufacturer had ties 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 operate these cameras for a year. It should be noted that the cameras already used in stations and on platforms were not from Suzhou Huaqi Intelligent Technology, according to the transit agency.

The MTA entered into an agreement with the manufacturer to test the cameras, free of charge, in January 2019. According to the Daily News, shortly thereafter the manufacturer was acquired by another Chinese company, Beijing Infrastructure Investment.

BII would develop facial recognition systems and have ties to the Chinese state. A S&P Global A 2016 company memo stated that “the government exercises very strict control over the company’s strategy, operations and management appointments”.

MTA executives were obviously never told about the pilot program, and the placement of the cameras didn’t even have to go through a board vote. Once the superiors became aware, and once the MTA discovered the nature of Suzhou Huaqi’s ownership, it canceled the plan. Extract from the Daily News:

MTA spokesman Ken Lovett said transit honchos were unaware of the test cameras until The News began asking about Bii Railway on Wednesday.

“This short-term test and evaluation was designed to determine if the equipment would meet New York City Transit’s requirements to be considered a potential approved system for future subway car purchases,” Lovett said.

“Once management became aware of the testing program and questions were raised about the control of this particular company, we terminated the assessment.”

The MTA said at a press conference on April 21 that it does not use facial recognition on any of the cameras. The Daily News says it was unable to determine whether the Chinese companies involved “have been actively investigated by national security authorities.”

Although the MTA may not have been aware of BII’s future acquisition of Suzhou Huaqi at the time it agreed to install the company’s cameras in subway cars, it is nevertheless surprising that all this escaped for more than a year after.

Chinese tech companies are under intense scrutiny from US government officials these days, even in situations where espionage allegations are tenuous at best. As in the case of television maker TCL, which was former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. brazenly accused to incorporate “backdoors into all of its TVs exposing users to cyber breaches and data exfiltration” in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in December. TCL later refuted this claim.

Although the MTA may have canceled this trial, the transit agency is still great in surveillance these days. Maybe he should be a little more careful about where his gear comes from. We contacted the MTA to find out if they intend to find another provider, although Friday evening we did not hear back.

Updated April 27, 2021 at 10:55 a.m. ET: The MTA responded to Jalopnik stating that the cameras were only being tested, not permanently installed. Shams Tarek, MTA Deputy Director of Communications, issued the following statement:

We have decided to end testing and evaluation late Wednesday afternoon, not Thursday. Also, to be clear, they were a potential seller. The idea was to test and evaluate their equipment to see if they could meet New York City Transit’s requirements to be considered a potential approved system for future subway car purchases. They were not installed permanently, but only as a test.

Additionally, the contract was negotiated by the previous administration of New York City Transit, which may explain why some staff were aware of the program while others were not. Installation had been postponed to this month due to COVID-19. While testing of these cameras had summer “discontinued with immediate effect” since last week, the MTA could not confirm if it was working to find another provider after our investigation.