Cambridge, Massachusetts Passes Ban On Facial Recognition Tech Use By Government Agencies

from the party-on,-faceblockers dept

Congratulations to Cambridge, Massachusetts for joining the banwagon! Cambridge joins three other communities in the state which have decided facial recognition tech is too risky, too invasive of privacy, and all-around bad news for their residents. Brookline, Somerville, and Northampton have also banned the tech, potentially leading the way for a statewide ban.

A bill before the State House would also establish a statewide moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology and other forms of biometric surveillance, including the analysis of a person’s gait or voice, until the legislature regulates the software.

These communities join their West Coast counterparts in making the tech unavailable to government agencies. San Francisco and Oakland both banned the tech recently. This was followed by a statewide ban that made these efforts (mostly) redundant. But not completely. The state ban only applies to cameras operated by law enforcement officers. The city bans block all city government agencies from deploying the tech.

There really isn’t any good reason for any city or state to, at the very minimum, not pass a moratorium on facial recognition use. The tech is unproven. Specs vary widely between vendors, but most of the major offerings aren’t exactly burning up the charts in terms of false positives. That’s still a huge problem. But it’s only one of the problems.

A large percentage of false positives also means the programs are prone to false negatives, which runs contrary to law enforcement assertions the tech will aid and abet in crime-solving. You need to be able to accurately identify people to do that and high miss rates don’t exactly point to increased law enforcement efficiency.

Beyond that, the tech tends to show bias, some of which can be attributed to the people building the programs. The quality of the training inputs also matters, but the race to grab market share means speed is prized over accuracy. At this point, facial recognition tech is mostly known for getting things wrong and giving white males yet another reason to be grateful they’re white and male.

Unfortunately, these efforts will probably be temporary. There’s no way law enforcement agencies will go without this tech for long. And these agencies wield a great deal of power when it comes to crafting legislation, especially if they’re represented by a union.

As heartening as it is to see these efforts come to fruition, the widespread deployment of facial recognition tech feels almost inevitable. Maybe it isn’t. But state efforts won’t do much to halt the ever-expanding plans of the federal government, which is very much interested to subjecting as many Americans as possible to biometric collections, all in the name of national security. But a groundswell of state efforts could halt this advance or, at the very least, slow the surveillance rush back to a creep.

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Comments on “Cambridge, Massachusetts Passes Ban On Facial Recognition Tech Use By Government Agencies”

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11 Comments
Pete Austin says:

All

Re: “There really isn’t any good reason for any city or state to, at the very minimum, not pass a moratorium on facial recognition use”.

Yes there is, because facial recognition is not all the same. Facial recognition to pick out people in a crowd is one thing, and arguably that should be banned. Facial recognition as a quick way for people to activate their iphone is completely different.

I don’t know why privacy advocates pretend that the only way forward is to ban both.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: All

Facial recognition as a quick way for people to activate their iphone is completely different.

Nope. It’s same bad "security" practice used slightly differently. A computer can’t tell the difference between a "live" event vs. a recording. Using your face to unlock anything is a bad security decision, as it will never be able to tell that one input is "you in this moment" VS. another input that is "some recording of you made to look like it’s in this moment." Just ask any criminal who has hacked camera feeds to throw off investigators or incriminate a rival. Or ask any government that has deliberately altered video evidence to get their guy. The same is true for your phone.

Given enough time, the "random" gesture(s) it asks you to perform will reach their complexity limit, and you’ll have an overlap that a recording exists for. Unless you feel like doing facial workouts while flailing your arms around for 20+ minutes just to get into your phone.

I don’t know why privacy advocates pretend that the only way forward is to ban both.

Because the easier it is to ID someone that way the greater the risk of abuse. As I just illustrated above, it’s a flawed technology that can be abused easily with little benefit for the average person. There’s no real reason to invest in further development at this time, beyond it’s potential for abuse. Maybe once AI gets to the point that conversations with others is possible, but that’s still quite a ways off yet. (And that may happen "naturally" if the AI is good enough anyway.)

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: All

"Any biometrics are really equivalent to a username, but marketing departments want everyone to think they are a password."

^This.

In order to obtain an actual passkey of any decent size and entropy you need to intrude far more severely on the subject’s life (burglary, pickpocketing, the 5 dollar wrench attack, etc) than simply lifting fingerprints or snapping a photo or movie.

Biometrics as a security key just hits the "cheap" and "convenient" edge of the security triangle while leaving actual "security" out completely.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: All

"Yes there is, because facial recognition is not all the same. Facial recognition to pick out people in a crowd is one thing, and arguably that should be banned. Facial recognition as a quick way for people to activate their iphone is completely different. I don’t know why privacy advocates pretend that the only way forward is to ban both."

Because once you’re on a suspect list no further questions will be asked how you got there? We’ve seen, ever since the GWB administration tried to automate no-fly and terrorist suspect list entries, that the amount of false positives is´high and the fallout VERY bad.

Now, if all your iPhone did when you tried to unlock it with your face was…unlocking your iPhone, then all is well. When it also signs you into the Apple store, and by extension, every software app using that verification…
…it just means programs such as PRISM end up locating whatever your face translates as in their list as <person A just located at GPS coordinates Y, doing activity Z>.

You unlocked that phone while walking down a street currently being surveilled by the DEA or the ATF – well congratulations, your name just got linked to drug deals or illegal arm sales.

So by all means, let’s please ban any governmental use of facial recognition tech until there are sensible laws as to how that information may be utilized, especially when it comes to linking said information to the umpteen types of "suspect bucket lists" floating around the DHS.

Sok Puppette says:

"Ban", eh?

That’s a pretty lame excuse for a ban.

There is no reason that private surveillance camera users should be allowed to have the kind of automated, mass face recognition they’re talking about "banning", any more than government users. They’re at least as likely to abuse it and even less accountable.

Nobody should be trying to connect names or any other information to any person who just enters a place where a camera happens to be pointed. Nor should anybody be shouldn’t be using the video/images from surveillance to build any kind of face database or any other kind of database.

Only in the US would people miss the obvious fact that the impact is the same no matter who runs the system.

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