- Vornado Realty Trust began installing facial recognition systems in buildings it owns in New York City five years ago.
- The company, one of the city’s largest commercial landlords with 19 million square feet across 35 buildings, recently expanded its use of the tech to 11 buildings and plans to roll it out across its entire portfolio.
- The coronavirus pandemic has prompted landlords to scramble to create seamless and touchless methods for tenants to pass through lobby security and dispatch elevators.
- Vornado believes its use of facial recognition could help it encourage tenants to return to the pot-Covid workplace.
- Vornado executives say the company uses facial recognition responsibly, allowing tenants to opt in and out voluntarily and securing and anonymizing the data.
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Vornado Realty Trust, among New York City’s largest office landlords, said it uses facial recognition in portions of its expansive portfolio and plans to expand its use of the controversial technology as workers are expected to migrate back to the office in the coming months.
The nearly $7 billion public company, which controls 19 million square feet across 35 properties in Manhattan, is one of the only major commercial landlords to embrace face reading, a technology that has raised public concerns over surveillance and privacy.
In a conversation with Business Insider, Vornado executives described the company’s deployment of facial recognition in detail for the first time, stating that it was part of a push to modernize its buildings technologically in recent years and create more convenient entry systems for tenants.
Touchless methods that allow employees in large office buildings to quickly pass through lobby security and dispatch an elevator have gained importance amid the coronavirus pandemic as tenants have become concerned about the transmission of germs in public spaces and the workplace.
Vornado has used facial-recognition in some office buildings for the past five years
In Vornado’s case, the company has employed face-reading systems in its buildings for the past five years, it said, positioning it as a potential leader in creating the kind of accessibility that landlords hope will encourage a return to the office.
“We are constantly looking to adopt new, cutting-edge technologies that will make our buildings more efficient and life more convenient for our tenants,” said David Greenbaum, Vornado’s vice chairman and one of the company’s senior leaders.
Greenbaum said that he first began discussing the technology with Vornado’s chairman and CEO, Steve Roth, about six years ago after noticing that some tenants in Vornado properties had to carry with them two entry cards, one to clear through a building’s turnstiles and another to access the doors to their specific space.
Facial recognition offered the promise of creating an entry credential that required no phone, wallet, or access card.
Prior to 2020, the company installed the systems in 5 of its buildings. It later sold one of those office properties, leaving the company with 4 buildings where facial recognition is in operation. This year it accelerated work to install the technology in 7 additional buildings after Covid-19 hit. Those systems are now operational.
The company plans to install face-reading systems in its entire portfolio, but has not laid out a timeline when that work will be complete. Among the buildings where it will soon deploy the technology are One and Two Penn Plaza, large office properties that the company is in the process of extensively renovating. Among the buildings where face reading is already in operation is the large Midtown office tower, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, and 340 West 34th Street, where Amazon has offices.
Greenbaum initially suggested that Vornado would have face-reading cameras at the Farley Building, where it just signed a blockbuster lease with Facebook to occupy the over 700,000 square feet of office space at the property, which Vornado is redeveloping. A person at Vornado later clarified that that was not the case, stating the building would not be equipped with the technology. A spokeswoman for Facebook told Business Insider confirmed that employees wouldn’t be using facial recognition as an entry method at the property and would instead use the company’s standard badge system for access.
How office workers can opt in to facial recognition
Tenants can opt in and out of the system voluntarily and there is about a 40% participation rate in the 4 properties that had the technology prior to 2020, a total of about 6,000 of the 15,000 office employees who work in those properties.
“Virtually everyone who has used the technology has liked it,” Greenbaum said. “I never had a preconceived notion of what the adoption rate would be, but as our tenants see others using it, they are becoming increasingly comfortable with the technology.”
It isn’t clear yet what the participation rate will be in the 7 properties where the technology was recently brought online because most tenants haven’t yet returned to the workplace, Vornado said.
Gaston Silva, the company’s New York area chief operating officer, said that tenants who participate have their photo taken and that their biometric data is stored anonymously in onsite systems.
“Every face is assigned a number that is disassociated from someone’s identity,” Silva said. “The information is encrypted and stored on systems that cannot be accessed from the internet.”
Many landlords have shied away from using facial recognition technology, especially as controversies have erupted over its use.
China uses it to surveil its citizens and oppress the Uyghurs, a minority population of Muslim citizens along its western border, actions that have drawn worldwide condemnation.
Clearview AI created an algorithm that pulled billions of faces from pictures posted on the internet, creating a database that could be used to identify nearly anyone.
“Based on my conversations with tenants, many find the concept of facial recognition to be creepy and they are opposed to the idea,” said Craig Deitelzweig, CEO of Marx Realty, which has a portfolio of 4.6 million square feet of commercial space.
Facial-recognition proponents insist there are ethical ways to use the technology, including by taking the key steps of receiving consent from participants, securely storing their data, being transparent how it is used, and giving participants the right to opt out.
Vornado has used third-party facial reading technology and outside vendors to help it deploy the systems in its buildings, partners it declined to name. On its website, Vornado states that it uses the security company GMSC, which is owned by Vornado and has its headquarters in the Vornado-owned office building Eleven Penn Plaza, to help it manage tenants and visitor access to its buildings and “biometric facial recognition installation and enrollment assistance.”
GMSC, on its website, says it handles security work for Amazon, Facebook, and Bloomberg, all three of which are tenants in Vornado’s New York portfolio.
Subsequent to deploying face-reading systems, Vornado developed mobile applications that allow tenants to use their smart phone to pass through lobby security. Some tenants prefer facial recognition, Greenbaum said.
“In fact, facial recognition is easier than using your phone,” Greenbaum said. “If you are on a call when you enter the building, you likely would prefer not to move the phone from your ear in order to bring it closer to the turnstile.”
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Clarification: Vornado executives initially stated that the company planned to install facial recognition systems at the Farley Building, where Facebook just signed a large office lease. A person at Vornado later clarified that the company, in fact, won’t be installing facial reading systems at the building. Facebook also stated it won’t have its employees use facial reading at the Farley Building and will instead use its badge system for entry.