Boston Mulls Facial Recognition Ban Ahead of Possible Updates

While existing surveillance infrastructure does not use facial recognition technology, potential updates to the system could make it possible. Officials are considering a prohibition on the controversial technology.

by Jackson Cote, MassLive.com / May 7, 2020
A surveillance camera outside the Northampton Police Department. The city banned the use of facial recognition technology in December. TNS

(TNS) — Boston is the latest city to consider passing a municipal ban on the use of facial recognition technology, a software that has been criticized for its potential to violate civil liberties and misidentify members of the public, especially people of color.

City Councilors Michelle Wu and Ricardo Arroyo on Wednesday introduced an ordinance restricting the community’s government from using the technology, according to a statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

The ACLU claimed passing the ordinance is particularly time-sensitive. The organization, citing public records it obtained, said the city of Boston’s surveillance camera network, run by BriefCam since at least 2017, may be in for a big update soon.

The city’s contract with BriefCam is set to expire on May 14. Boston’s current version of the network does not include facial surveillance features. However, if the community renews its contract and upgrades to the company’s latest software, officials “will have instant access to a dangerous and unregulated surveillance tool,” according to the ACLU.

“A mere software update at the Boston Police Department could super-charge Boston’s existing network of surveillance cameras, establishing a face surveillance system capable of monitoring every person’s public movements, habits, and associations,” the ACLU of Massachusetts said.

The Boston Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from MassLive about the ACLU’s statements.

The city’s ordinance proposal comes as Massachusetts state legislators are considering placing a statewide moratorium on the governmental use of facial recognition technology and other forms of biometric surveillance systems, including gait and voice recognition.

A poll from last year showed that nearly eight in 10 Massachusetts voters support a moratorium on the government use of face surveillance software, which remains largely unregulated both statewide and nationally.

Several towns and cities in the commonwealth have already taken it into their own hands to outright ban the software or suspend its use until restrictions are put in place at the municipal level.

Springfield was the latest community to pass such a measure. Somerville was the first in the state to restrict the use of the technology in June 2019, and similar ordinances have been passed in BrooklineNorthampton and Cambridge.

Getting the state as well as local governments to ban the use of the software is part of the ACLU of Massachusetts’s “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” campaign that launched last summer. The organization hopes to make the public aware of the civil liberties concerns posed by face surveillance and the need to pass a statewide moratorium.

The organization claimed the ordinances passed by the five Massachusetts communities “strengthen the civil liberties of more than 430,000 Massachusetts residents, and protect them from dystopian, unregulated, often racially biased technologies.”

Wu and Arroyo - who filed a separate ordinance to provide oversight to the broad use of surveillance technology in Boston and to protect student privacy - said facial recognition technology is plagued by transparency and racial bias issues

The city councilors’ newly introduced ordinances include provisions requiring that any use of surveillance technologies to protect public health amid the coronavirus pandemic is “proportionate, effective and responsible,” according to the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Other countries have used surveillance softwares to track people who have been ordered to quarantine themselves due to the viral respiratory infection. The city of Boston has not publicly undertaken such efforts. If the community does turn toward these digital methods, though, the ACLU said, it should be subject to rigorous oversight to protect the public interest.

“Studies continue to provide evidence that facial recognition technology disproportionately harms Black and Brown communities which further widens the racial inequities we already face,” Arroyo said in a statement. "Especially now, during a time where communities of color are being hit hardest by COVID-19, we need to proactively ensure that we do not invest in technology that studies show are ineffective and further racial inequity.”

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty initiative at the ACLU of Massachusetts, noted subjecting residents to 24/7 surveillance impacts the privacy rights of all members of the public. She urged the Boston City Council to act quickly to pass a facial recognition technology ban.

“Boston has a chance to lead here, and we look forward to working with allied organizations, the council, and the city to ensure we do,” she said.

©2020 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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