Northampton City Council bans facial recognition software

  • Northampton City Hall FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/20/2019 4:30:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In the last City Council meeting of the year on Thursday night, councilors unanimously approved an ordinance that would ban government use of facial recognition software in the city.

“While it could in some instances prove to be a valuable tool, the potential harm that’s available, in my mind, trumps that,” Councilor William Dwight said, offering his opinion on the technology.

It isn’t being used in Northampton today, officials say. “There is no facial recognition software currently being employed by the city — notwithstanding the fact that there there is possibly desire at some point to use it,” Dwight said.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper could not be reached for comment on Friday, though councilors said that they had discussed the proposed ordinance with her.

Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra said the technology is inaccurate. “The error rate for this kind of software is too high, and it’s discriminatorily so,” she said. “There isn’t a margin of error that’s applied equally across the entire population.”

A report released on Thursday by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is affiliated with the U.S. Department of Commerce, tested 189 different face recognition algorithms and found racial bias. In confirming a photo matches another photo of the same person, the study found there were more false positives for Asian and African-American faces compared to white ones. The difference in error rate could range from a factor of 10 to a factor of 100 across the different algorithms studied. In deciding if a photo matches any in a database, algorithms produced higher rates of error for the faces of African-American women, according to the report.

The ordinance — recommended by Dwight, Sciarra, and Councilor Alisa Klein — has a clause that requires that City Council review the ordinance in three years.

Councilor Dennis Bidwell was supportive of the inclusion of a review clause.

“I would hope that in three years there would be an open-mindedness to again take a fresh look at the benefits of the use of the technology and the potential harm of the technology,” he said. “The calculus could be very different then. But right now, it’s clearly on the side of not permitting this technology for use in our city.”

Thursday was the first time the City Council voted on the policy, but after taking a first vote, councilors voted to suspend the rules and take a second and final vote. Under city rules, many matters require two votes that typically take place on different days, unless the council votes with a two-thirds majority to waive the rules.

The passage of the Northampton ordinance follows similar initiatives enacted around the country this year, including in Somerville, Brookline and San Francisco.

Nearby communities in western Massachusetts have discussed it, too. Some members of the Springfield City Council have talked about a potential ban on the use of facial recognition software by the government, including the police. Although Springfield police said it does not plan to use facial recognition systems, some city councilors are nevertheless against it, citing concerns about racial discrimination and studies that show facial recognition software makes more mistakes identifying women and people with darker skin tones.

There are no state or federal laws that regulate this technology, said Bill Newman, director of the American Civil Liberties Union western Massachusetts office.

“So far this is a completely unregulated area,” Newman told the Gazette. “It’s important for municipalities to protect the fundamental rights and privacy interests of their residents.”

Newman, who spoke in favor of the ordinance during the City Council meeting, said that as state and federal government lags behind in making policies on this technology, municipalities are stepping up. “This is a movement to protect fundamental rights and privacy — the precious constitutional right to be left alone,” he said.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said he plans to sign the ordinance.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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