Survey sheds light on law enforcement use of facial recognition

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston FILE PHOTO

State House News Service
Published: 12/20/2021 2:48:57 PM
Modified: 12/20/2021 2:48:42 PM

BOSTON — As a legislative commission works toward recommendations to regulate government use of facial recognition technology in Massachusetts, more than 20 departments that submitted information to the panel say they are currently using the technology in some capacity or plan to bring it online in the future.

The commission, created as part of the police reform law Gov. Charlie Baker signed last year, circulated a survey among law enforcement and adjacent agencies inquiring about their use of facial recognition technology. So far, the panel has received answers from 163 entities.

About 5.5% of respondents said they currently use facial recognition technology, including Massachusetts State Police, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, and local police in Kingston, Norwood, Milton, Pittsfield, Southwick, Tewksbury and Wellesley, according to preliminary survey results the panel presented at a Friday meeting.

Eleven departments – Acton, Acushnet, Arlington, Ashby, Dedham, Dudley, Marlborough, Peabody, Randolph, Somerset and Stoneham – said they previously used or tested facial recognition but no longer do so.

The Essex County District Attorney’s office and police in Andover, Bedford, Bourne, Dover, Gloucester, Hingham, Holyoke, Lynn, South Hadley, Southampton and Westminster said they do not currently use facial recognition but plan to do so in the future.

Among 18 departments that detailed their deployment of facial recognition technology in response to the commission’s inquiry, the frequency of use varied. Eleven respondents, representing a majority, have used it five or fewer times, while Norwood police and the Suffolk County DA’s office replied that they have conducted 51 or more searches on a facial recognition platform.

Overall, about 80% of respondents told the panel they have never used facial recognition technology and do not plan to do so.

Commission staff said the State Police replied to the survey that the department currently uses facial recognition but did not provide details about how many searches it has run or reviewed.

The data presented to the panel on Friday are not comprehensive and reflect only a segment of the law enforcement landscape in Massachusetts, but they offer a glimpse into the role that facial recognition has already played amid warnings from opponents that its spread could carry permanent consequences.

Under the police reform law signed Dec. 31, 2020, police can conduct searches of facial recognition systems to assist with criminal cases or to mitigate “substantial risk of harm” after they submit a written request to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, State Police, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The law also convened the commission and tasked it with crafting recommendations by Dec. 31 for additional steps lawmakers could take.

Members of the panel still have not agreed on their recommendations as staff begin to outline a final report. At Friday’s meeting, many commissioners voiced support for enacting some kind of legal limit on public use of facial recognition technology, particularly for surveillance tracking and emotion recognition purposes, amid concerns over civil rights and racial justice impacts.

“Misuse and abuse of the technology for (surveillance) raises such profound civil rights and civil liberties problems that the costs far outweigh any potential benefits that we might be able to see from this technology further down the road,” said Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Some law enforcement officials on the commission said they see some value in limited use of the technology while also calling for guardrails around how and when it could be deployed.

Jeff Farnsworth, a senior policy advisor in the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security who previously served as Hampden police chief, said he believes an outright ban on police use of facial recognition technology – called for by at least one commissioner – “is a little premature,” pointing to the numbers from the panel’s survey.

“We can see that it is not extremely widespread or used extensively throughout our law enforcement community, and I think definitely since the police reform legislation, it has slowed considerably and given us some time to look at this,” Farnsworth said.

“I can’t imagine looking at a victim of any type of crime and saying, hey, we could take action here, but we simply can’t do it because of the law,” added Gloucester Police Chief Edward Conley.

For Northeastern University professor Woodrow Hartzog, whose research focuses on privacy and artificial intelligence, the rate at which facial recognition technology has been adopted in Massachusetts so far is itself a reason to enact strict regulations.

“The genie is not out of the bottle yet, and more importantly, we’re actually considering what rules we should recommend to the Legislature and the Legislature controls what genies we want to allow out of the bottle,” Hartzog said. “Once the genie does actually get out of the bottle and becomes completely normalized, which I don’t think it has yet, then it becomes, I think, a lot harder to change.”


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