Boston The Latest City To Ban Facial Recognition Use By Government Agencies

from the returning-the-public's-faces-to-them dept

San Francisco led the way. Then the entire state of California followed suit. And on the other side of the country, a few smaller cities in Massachusetts did the same thing: banned facial recognition.

It just makes sense. The tech that's out there is as dangerous as it is unproven. Mostly known for its false positive rates, facial recognition software has shown it's capable of amplifying existing biases into actionable "intel" with the power to severely disrupt people's lives.

It's not just hypothetical. Just recently, a Michigan man became the first false positive arrested. He was detained for 30 hours based on a mismatch delivered by facial recognition software. Even companies that have been pitching facial recognition tech to law enforcement agencies have pulled back in recent weeks, refusing to become part of the problem… at least for the time being. One company that has done nothing but sell tech to cops has decided it won't be adding facial recognition to its near-ubiquitous body cameras.

With all of this going on, news of another facial recognition ban in a major city is no longer surprising. But it's still welcome news.

Boston has banned the use of facial surveillance technology in the city, becoming the second-largest community in the world to do so.

The city council unanimously voted on Wednesday to ban the use of the technology and prohibit any city official from obtaining facial surveillance by asking for it through third parties. The measure will now go to Mayor Marty Walsh with a veto-proof majority.

Veto-proof… and yet:

Walsh's office said he would review the ban.

The mayor's office has spelled "sign" incorrectly.

The discussion leading to the vote included the case of Robert Williams, who was arrested by Michigan police officers after their software said a screen-grab from a lo-res CCTV camera matched Williams' drivers license photo. Even local law enforcement reps -- who say they aren't currently using the tech -- expressed their reservations.

During a hearing earlier this month, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross said the current technology isn't reliable, and that it isn't used by the department.

"Until this technology is 100%, I'm not interested in it," he said.

“I didn’t forget that I'm African American and I can be misidentified as well," he added.

The ban [PDF] says it's illegal for any city agency or official to obtain facial recognition tech, either directly or through a third party. It also forbids agencies from employing contractors who plan to utilize the tech.

There aren't many loopholes or carve outs. Law enforcement will be able to use evidence derived from facial recognition tech in investigations so long as this evidence wasn't generated by any entity covered by the ban. Hopefully, this won't result in a bunch of requests being sent of out-of-state/federal agencies for secondhand searches.

The bill also includes a loophole for phones, tablets, computers, and social media services that use facial recognition software to verify identity, saving the city the trouble of having to rewrite the law to ensure employees can still use their personal and city-issued electronics -- something San Francisco failed to consider when it became the first city in the country to ban the tech.

The new law also gives people the right to sue if they think they were the target of unlawful facial recognition tech. And it makes anything derived from the banned tech illegal, making it impossible to further investigations, use in court, or otherwise exploit for the city government's gain.

It's a good bill and it's on the way to joining the handful of pioneering anti-surveillance creep laws on the books around the nation. Given the current state of citizen/law enforcement relations, there are certainly more bans on the way.

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Filed Under: bans, boston, facial recognition, privacy


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  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 2 Jul 2020 @ 2:59pm

    I still have the concern...

    The way law enforcement has used IMSI catchers and NSA data, by extralegally using the method but then laundering the evidence, what is there stopping the same agencies from using facial recognition in the same way?

    None, I believe.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jul 2020 @ 4:39pm

      Re: I still have the concern...

      On the other hand, if the agencies have to go through the efforts of parallel construction, one would hope that more false positives would get weeded out in said construction.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Peter, 3 Jul 2020 @ 12:45am

    The real problem

    The real problem here is not the reliability or the false positives. It is the police's attitude to using it.

    Instead of using the results as simply an indication to do some more investigation, they use it as a magic permission to detain and arrest.

    These city's are not banning it because of its unreliability, but because they don't trust the cops not to mis-use it (and probably worried about the resulting expensive lawsuits).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Dari (profile), 5 Jul 2020 @ 7:29am

    Lawless Law Enforcement is the problem

    "The new law also gives people the right to sue if they think they were the target of unlawful facial recognition tech."

    And there's the out.

    If the last 2 months of police rioting has shown us anything it's that police have utter contempt for any law that limits their power.

    Until there is some punishment tied to the actual cop who breaks the law, they will ignore it. The idea that the city may get sued is of no impact and no concern to the lawless law enforcement officer.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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