Somerville, Massachusetts Becomes The Second US City To Ban Facial Recognition Tech

from the pioneering-spirit-that-made-America-great dept

Is it a movement? Or just a couple of outliers that will forever remain on the periphery of the surveillance state? It's too early to say, but at least we can now say San Francisco isn't an anomaly.

Somerville, Massachusetts just became the second U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition in public space.

The "Face Surveillance Full Ban Ordinance," which passed through Somerville's City Council on Thursday night, forbids any “department, agency, bureau, and/or subordinate division of the City of Somerville” from using facial recognition software in public spaces. The ordinance passed Somerville’s Legislative Matters Committee on earlier this week.

Last month, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban the use of facial recognition tech by city government agencies. While it can't keep the federales from rolling in and deploying the software against city residents, it does prevent local law enforcement from deciding this is the tech toy it can't live without.

The ordinance passed in Somerville is pretty much the same thing. No local use, but federal-level use is OK. To be fair, the city can't regulate the activities of the federal government. It could have forbidden local agencies from working with federal agencies using facial recognition tech, but it didn't go quite that far.

This is a solid move, one that certainly looks smarter than allowing local cops to load up on tech that's been roasted by Congress and (still!) sports a pretty gaudy failure rate.

If other cities are interested in joining the very short list of facial recognition banners, activists have created a few road maps for governments to use. At the moment, the greatest chance for success appears to be at the hyper-local level. The ACLU says it all comes down to cities making the most of their limited power.

Kade Crockford, director of the technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a phone call that at the state level, the ACLU is advocating for a moratorium or pause of facial recognition technology, while at the local level, the ACLU is advocating for bans.

“At the municipal level, it’s different,” Crockford said. “State governments have the capacity to regulate, whereas local governments really don’t. They don’t have the ability, for example, to create new institutions that could oversee, with sufficient care and attention, the implementation of an oversight or accountability system to guard against civil rights and civil liberties abuses.”

Generating momentum at the state level may be difficult until more cities are on board. If bans like these become more common, state legislators may respond favorably to wind direction changes and finally push back a bit against entrenched interests with an inordinate amount of power, like police unions and incumbent politicians with an authoritarian bent.

Somerville and its small network of 30 government-owned surveillance cameras may not seem like much, but a ban on the books is still effective if the city decides it needs to expand its set of eyes. And, as Vice News reports, it's not just small towns taking up San Francisco's anti-surveillance creep torch. Oakland -- which has already made major strides in curbing local government use of surveillance gear -- is considering a ban of its own.

Filed Under: ban, facial recognition, massachusetts, somerville


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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 2 Jul 2019 @ 2:53am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: the surveillance state?

    Give someone one picture or video of a person and they can tell you where that person was and who(if anyone) they were with at that very moment.

    Give someone thousands of pictures/videos of a person from cameras scattered throughout a city and and it becomes all too easy to create an entire narrative of their life outside the house, from where they work, who they hang out with(potentially leading to knowing their religion if any, their political party, their sexuality...), whether they might have an illness or other personal issue they might wish to keep secret...

    One picture on it's own might not be too intrusive or a privacy concern. Add up enough pictures and you might as well have anyone so covered carry a camera around them at all times, which very much is intrusive and a privacy concern.


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