Columnist William Newman: Facial recognition technology: Ban it now

  • In this Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 photo, a video surveillance camera hangs on a pole outside City Hall in Springfield. AP

Published: 7/8/2020 8:00:20 PM

This story began on June 27, 2019 at the Somerville City Council, which that evening unanimously adopted the state’s first municipal facial recognition technology ban.

On Dec. 11, 2019, the Brookline Town Meeting, with 178 in favor and 8 opposed, adopted a similar prohibition. The following week, on Dec. 19, 2019, the Northampton City Council unanimously passed its facial recognition ban. The next month, on Jan. 13, 2020, the Cambridge City Council, also unanimously by ordinance prohibited facial recognition technology in that city. On Feb. 25, 2020, the Springfield City Council followed suit, voting 11 in favor and two opposed. On June 24, 2020, the Boston City Council unanimously passed its facial recognition ban ordinance, and on July 1 so did the City Council of Easthampton, also unanimously. (Disclosure: I was part of the ACLU of Massachusetts team that worked on the western Massachusetts ordinances.)

Something is happening here, and we do know what it is. The people of Massachusetts are demanding that the government take steps to prohibit technology that perpetrates racially biased law enforcement and threatens everyone’s privacy.

Face surveillance systems are computer programs designed to analyze the images of human faces — to identify and track people, usually at a distance, without the person’s knowledge or consent. It performs this function by reducing images of faces to an algorithm, and then matching — allegedly — that algorithm to information derived from images of faces stored in a database.

There are two times when “face surveillance is dangerous, when it works and when it doesn’t,” according to Kade Crockford, ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Program Director.

As for when it works: In George Orwell’s “1984” telescreens, devices that operate as televisions, security cameras and microphones, monitor and spy on the citizens of Oceania. That’s why that government required every person to have one. Face recognition is the 2020 version of Orwell’s telescreens.

As for when it doesn’t: Study after study has substantiated the technology’s enormous racial and gender bias. Racial bias is baked into the databases because of the underrepresentation of persons of color. Consider this recent front-page New York Times story.

Based on a facial recognition match, the Detroit police arrested and handcuffed Robert Williams on his front lawn in front of his wife and two young daughters and hauled him off to a detention center. There the police took his mugshot, fingerprints and DNA, charged him with first-degree theft and kept him locked up for about 30 hours before taking him to an interrogation room.

When the police showed him the photograph of the suspect that facial recognition technology had erroneously matched to his face, he pointed out that the photograph wasn’t of him, didn’t look like him and said, “You think all Black men look alike?” The police had to let him go. Later, the city’s police chief, James Craig, confessed that the department’s face recognition technology misidentifies — that is, gets it wrong — 96% of the time.

To successfully combat police abuses we must constrain technology that fosters and exacerbates the abuse. As of now in Massachusetts, only the municipal ordinances — no state law or regulation — protect us from this biased technology that allows the government to secretly surveil, identify and track everyone without their consent.

That could change. Indeed, a solution is at hand. The Massachusetts Legislature for some time has had before it proposals to impose a moratorium on facial surveillance technology, to press pause while the state decides if, how and when the technology may be used.

A moratorium makes good sense. Policymakers need time to figure out and write the rules necessary to protect due process, privacy, free speech, freedom of association and insure racial and gender equality.

On Monday of this week the state Senate revealed its police reform bill (S. 2800) that, among its provisions, prohibits chokeholds, establishes an officer’s duty to intervene if another officer is using excessive force, requires certifying and decertifying police officers and addresses facial recognition technology. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill on Thursday, July 9. It is unclear whether the House will take up the Senate bill or move forward with its own.

The facial recognition technology ban is an important part of the bill, and the people of Massachusetts overwhelmingly support the moratorium. According to an ACLU of Massachusetts poll, 79% of Massachusetts voters support a statewide moratorium on government use of face surveillance technology. That includes 84% of Democrats, 82% of Independents, and 50% of Republicans. Voters almost unanimously — 91% — think that if the government is going to use this technology, strict regulations must be imposed.

“Privacy laws,” the ACLU’s Crockford says, “have not kept pace with advancements of digital technology.” This is indisputably true, and the Legislature needs to enact a prohibition on face surveillance technology that remains in place unless and until robust restrictions on its use and ironclad protections for our privacy can be imposed. The time to act is now.

Bill Newman is the Director of the Western Regional Law Office of the ACLU of Massachusetts. His column appears monthly.

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