Somerville, Mass., Council Votes to Ban Facial Recognition

The city is one of a handful of local governments creating new rules around the use of the technology. Officials at all levels of government have voiced concern about built-in bias and the need for regulation.

by Steph Solis, MassLive.com / June 28, 2019
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(TNS) — Somerville became the second U.S. city and the first on the East Coast known that has banned city use of facial recognition technology.

The Somerville City Council unanimously voted Thursday night to pass an ordinance that would bar any city department or agency from using facial surveillance over concerns that the practice invades residents’ privacy and tends to be less accurate identifying people of color, especially women and young people.

“I think it’s a small step, but it’s like a reminder that we are in charge of our own society, and the community activists, the government working together, can actually shape this stuff,” said City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, who introduced the ordinance. “We don’t have to sit down and take it.”

Ewen-Campen, who represents Ward 3, worked with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts to draft the bill. The ACLU is campaigning for a statewide moratorium on facial recognition software and supported legislation by state Sen. Cynthia Creem and Rep. David Rogers to regulate the technology.

San Francisco was the first city to approve such a ban in May. The news of Somerville’s proposed ban has spread across the country at a time when, among other things, social media giants face scrutiny about how they treat users data.

Ewen-Campen said he believes the proposal gained national attention because of concerns about police misconduct and implicit biases toward people of color, as well as concerns about privacy in the 21st century.

“There is just this feeling that this technological change in our society is just inevitable and ... there’s just an onslaught of privacy invasions,” he said.

City councilors in the legislative matters committee spent several hours discussing how such an ordinance would be enforced. They ultimately agreed on an amendment barring any information collected by the city through facial recognition from being used in a Somerville proceeding and allowing residents who believe the city is surveilling them using the technology to sue for damages of at least $1,000 or $100 per violation, whichever amount is greater.

The final draft also included a provision stating that nothing in the ordinance “should be construed to limit any individual’s rights under state or federal law,” to anticipate possible changes in state or federal law over the technology.

No regulation exists on the technology, which the ACLU of Massachusetts says is “threatening core civil rights and civil liberties." The organization believes that police in Massachusetts use the facial surveillance.

The Boston Globe reported in 2015 that law enforcement agencies submitted 258 photos to the Registry of Motor Vehicles to search against the driver’s license database. Seventy-two of those scans came from federal agencies.

“The city is sending a bold statement that it won’t sit by idly while the dystopian technology further outpaces our civil liberties protections and harms privacy, racial and gender justice, and freedom of speech," said Kade Crockford, director of the technology for liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Massachusetts must also lead the nation by passing a statewide moratorium until there are safeguards in place.”

©2019 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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