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Privacy Advocates Celebrate as Massachusetts City Becomes Second in US to Ban Facial Recognition Technology

"The city is sending a bold statement that it won't sit by idly while the dystopian technology further outpaces our civil liberties protections and harms privacy, racial and gender justice, and freedom of speech."

a facial recognition system for law enforcement

A display shows a facial recognition system for law enforcement during the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 1, 2017. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Civil liberties advocates around the country celebrated after Somerville, Massachusetts on Thursday became the second city in the United States to bar local government—including law enforcement—from using facial recognition technology.

"Facial recognition can be used to track our every movement, supercharge racial profiling and discrimination, target political dissidents, and control nearly every aspect of our lives."
—Evan Greer, Fight for the Future

By approving the ordinance, Somerville is "joining a growing nationwide movement to bring the technology under democratic control," Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Program, said in a statement to the news website Wicked Local North of Boston.

"The city is sending a bold statement that it won't sit by idly while the dystopian technology further outpaces our civil liberties protections and harms privacy, racial and gender justice, and freedom of speech," Crockford added.

Wicked Local reported that the ACLU of Massachusetts—which launched a "Press Pause on Face Surveillance" campaign earlier this month to highlight mounting concerns about how the technology can be used and abused—worked on the ordinance with Ben Ewen-Campen, the Somerville City Council member who introduced it.

After the ordinance passed unanimously, Ewen-Campen told Wicked Local that the policy "is a small step but it's a reminder that we are in charge of our own society... and that the community activists, the government working together, can actually shape this stuff, we don't have to just sit back and take it."

Somerville's Democratic mayor, Joseph Curtatone, signed the ordinance on Friday. In a statement to The Hill, he said, "I have serious concerns about the use of facial recognition technology, and I commend the city council for taking this important action to ban the acquisition or use of such technologies in our community."

Summarizing the mayor's statement, The Hill reported:

Curtatone raised concerns that the "unregulated" technology has been shown to result in "false identification," meaning the software misidentifies people's faces. And he noted Somerville is a "diverse community," which raises concerns about the "frequency of the technology's bias against minorities."

After the Somerville City Council Legislative Matters Committee on Tuesday advanced the facial recognition ban to a final vote, Evan Greer of the national digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future said that "some technology is simply too dangerous to exist."

"Facial recognition can be used to track our every movement, supercharge racial profiling and discrimination, target political dissidents, and control nearly every aspect of our lives," Greer warned. "Lawmakers are beginning to agree that this dystopian technology is dangerous."

Somerville's move to outlaw facial surveillance technology comes after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors enacted a similar ordinance—the nation's first—last month. Other California cities could soon approve their own local restrictions, as Fight for the Future detailed in a statement Friday:

Earlier this week on Tuesday, Oakland's Public Safety Committee unanimously approved an ordinance banning the use of facial recognition technology by the city's public agencies. Sponsored by Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, the ordinance is now expected to go to a full Council vote on July 9. Berkeley's City Council is considering a similar ordinance, which could also come to a vote on July 9 if it's approved by the Public Safety Committee next week.

Fight for the Future noted that the Somerville vote also came alongside another blow to facial recognition technology.

NPR reported Thursday that Axon, the largest manufacturer of police body cameras, announced "it is heeding the recommendation of an independent ethics board which it created last year after acquiring two artificial intelligence companies" and "rejecting the possibility of selling facial recognition technology—at least, for now."

Jake Laperruque, senior counsel for the watchdog group the Project On Government Oversight, told NPR that the company's decision is an indication of the technology's serious issues with misidentification.

"But we can't expect the company to stick to this pledge or other vendors to follow suit," Laperruque added. "The only way to truly protect the public from unrestricted facial recognition surveillance is to pass laws properly limiting it.

Greer, in a statement Friday, spoke out against companies that continue to develop the technology—which is increasingly being used by airlines, governments, law enforcement, retailers, and schools in the United States and across the globe.

"Tech companies that have developed facial recognition are telling us that it's the wave of the future, promising convenience and public safety. This is because they stand to profit from it," she said. "In reality, facial recognition is a menacing technology that will lead to a total surveillance regime, driven by suspicion and devoid of empathy. How many people could be imprisoned, deported, or killed because software casually misread their features and facial expressions, because a computer decided their fate? Facial recognition tech must be stopped."

Although there currently are no federal rules on facial recognition technology, the Democrat-controlled House Oversight Committee has held two hearings on the subject this year. After the first hearing in May, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) connected "the political reality that there is a global rise in authoritarianism and fascism" to concerns over how the technology threatens Americans' civil liberties.

At the second hearing earlier this month, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) captured a sentiment widely shared by privacy advocates and the public when she said: "This stuff freaks me out. I'm a little freaked out by facial recognition." In a tweet that same day, the congresswoman added: "You should be freaked out too. The inaccuracy and threat to our privacy is real."

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