Boston suburb bans facial recognition software


Citing concern over potential discrimination and dystopian misuse, the Somerville City Council in Massachusetts today voted to ban facial recognition software use by local police or city departments, the second U.S. city to outlaw the technology. The ban for the city of 81,000 near Boston follows the introduction of a facial recognition ban passed in San Francisco in May, an ordinance written in part by the ACLU. The ACLU also helped craft the Somerville ordinance.

In addition to a ban of active use by city departments, the ordinance outlaws use of data or evidence produced by facial recognition software systems in criminal investigations or legal proceedings. The local law will not restrict facial recognition use by state or federal law enforcement.

The law refers to facial recognition as the “functional equivalent of requiring every person to carry and display a personal photo identification card at all times” and cites concern false positive facial recognition matches for women, young people, immigrants, or people of color was listed among reasons the ordinance was created.

The ordinance was approved in a 11-0 vote, though the ban came as little surprise as 9 of 11 Somerville City Councilors sponsored the legislation.

As face recognition software begins to trickle into the workplace and consumer devices like the iPhone use them to verify purchases, it’s also growing in use by police, faces little regulation, and governments around beginning to consider how facial recognition software should be used in society.

Local residents shared 98 written comments and letters of support from the ACLU and a letter in opposition from trade organization Security industry Association about the legislation, Somerville City Clerk John Long told VentureBeat in an email. All letters received by the city support a ban.

“Any new “security” technology must be proven effective before taxpayer money is spent implementing it,” Somerville resident Dmitry Erastov said in a letter.

Founding editor of Logic magazine and Harvard University fellow Moira Weigel is a technologist married to a technologist who lives in Somerville.

“We know that such technologies enforce racism and cis-heterosexism, and hand over huge amounts. Of sensitive information to enrich democratically unaccountable private entities.  It’s no accident that San Francisco, another city with a high population of technologists who understand how these systems work, have also voted to ban them,” Weigel said.

Also this week: Police body camera maker Axon today pledged to keep facial recognition software from its devices. On Tuesday, the Oakland Privacy Advisory Committee in California endorsed facial recognition ban legislation language being considered by city council.

Brian Hofer is chair of the Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission and coauthor of the San Francisco legislation, but a ban in Oakland encountered some initial delays, he told VentureBeat last month. The California State Legislature is also considering a facial recognition ban on police body cam footage.

A number of AI or privacy advocates who advise state and national lawmakers about the risks and opportunities associated with facial recognition software favor a moratorium or outright ban of the technology.

The Boston area plays a fairly prominent role in facial recognition policy debates.

The Massachusetts State Legislature is currently considering the Face Surveillance Moratorium Act, a bill sponsored by a Boston area lawmaker.

Rep. Ayanna Presley (D-MA) who represents Somerville and Boston in Congress has participated in multiple House Oversight and Reform Committee hearings in recent weeks where bipartisan support for temporary limitations on facial recognition software use by law enforcement.

MIT Media Lab’s Joy Boulamwini, who testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee this week, led assessments that found leading facial recognition systems from companies like Microsoft, Face++ and Amazon’s Rekognition.

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