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Massachusetts Police Reform Bill Could Ban Facial Recognition

Opponents of biometric surveillance have pointed out that the software is being used by agencies with minimal oversight. This raises questions about the extent to which the technology should be used in everyday life.

Brookline PD surveillance footage
A layout of surveillance camera footage at the Brookline Police Department.
(TNS) — Facial recognition, a controversial type of software criticized for its inaccuracies and potential to violate personal privacies, has been at the forefront of debates on surveillance throughout the country, and Massachusetts may now be poised to ban the technology.

In February, The New York Times dedicated a 31-minutes episode of its popular podcast The Daily to reporting on the software’s existence and whether the technology provides a beneficial tool for law enforcement’s investigations or poses an even bigger threat to privacy.

Many individuals are continuing to argue for the latter.

Opponents of the form of biometric surveillance have pointed out that the software is being used by governmental agencies with minimal oversight and that it raises serious questions about the extent to which artificial intelligence should be used in everyday life.

Another concern is that facial recognition has proven to frequently misidentify people of color, elderly people and children.

The software even led Robert Williams, a Black man living in a suburb of Michigan, to be wrongfully identified and taken into custody for a crime he did not commit, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“They’re really only good at evaluating the faces of middle-aged, white men, which is obviously not the majority of the population,” Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told MassLive when discussing facial recognition. ”The tech. is just not ready for primetime, not even close.”

Starting as early as last year, residents, public officials and advocacy organizations from across the U.S. have fought for the technology to be regulated, and so far, seven communities in Massachusetts have either temporarily or outright banned their municipal government’s use of the software.

Easthampton was the most recent city to pass such a ban. A similar ordinance restricting the technology was signed into law in Boston, the second-largest city after San Francisco to ban the software in the United States.

“It’s hugely significant,” Crockford said of communities taking it upon themselves to restrict facial recognition at the local level. “City councilors have agreed that this technology poses really an unprecedented threat to people’s privacy and civil rights.”

Despite being lambasted for its civil liberties concerns and racial biases, facial recognition still remains largely unrestricted at both the state and federal levels. However, that could change in the weeks to come.

A wide-ranging, omnibus police reform bill, introduced by the Massachusetts Senate Ways and Means Committee on Sunday would temporarily ban the government’s use of the software.

The piece of legislation, called S.2800, would issue a statewide moratorium on the use of the technology, banning the government from using the software from the date the bill is potentially signed into law until Dec. 31, 2021.

Such legislation would prohibit a government agency, office, department, commission, bureau, agent or contractor from acquiring, possessing or accessing any form of biometric surveillance, excluding identification based on finger or palm prints.

A statewide facial recognition moratorium had previously been in the works for months but was then added as a provision onto the police reform bill.

Crockford pointed out that state legislatures are slow to act but noted the Massachusetts Senate is finally taking notice.

“The State Legislature is finally realizing that they need to do something,” she said. “We’re happy to see that.”

Among the dozens of provisions inside the police reform bill is the establishment of a special commission to study the use of facial recognition by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and law enforcement agencies.

The provision follows controversy from a year ago after the ACLU of Massachusetts sued MassDOT over the agency’s use of the driver’s license database for surveillance. MassDOT has used its database of state-issued identification photographs for facial recognition since 2006.

“The state of Massachusetts has a facial recognition program in their Registry of Motor Vehicles system, so that every time you go to get a driver’s license now, the picture that is taken of your face is scanned against all of the existing images that they have in their database,” Crockford explained. “They basically compare them to see if there’s a match, and if there is a match, you may be investigated for trying to get a driver’s license under a fake name or something like that.”

The committee’s members would include the State Senate and House chairs of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary as well as one person with academic expertise in bias in machine learning and another expert on privacy, technology and the law.

Several state officials, or representatives in their stead, would also serve as members on the committee, including Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack, Secretary of Public Safety and Security Thomas Turco and Attorney General Maura Healey.

Gov. Charlie Baker will be able to appoint five members to the commission as well, including executive directors or designees from the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, the New England Innocence Project, Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyer Association and the ACLU of Massachusetts.

A statewide ban on facial recognition technology is direly needed, Crockford emphasized, because, in its current state, the software cannot be used appropriately in any circumstances.

“We’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue until every single person in Massachusetts is protected,” she said.

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