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'A Historic Day': Boston City Council Bans Facial Recognition Surveillance

"Boston should not use racially discriminatory technology that threatens the privacy and basic rights of our residents."

The technology has been criticized for racial bias in identifying subjects. (Photo: Fight for the Future)

The Boston City Council on Wednesday unanimously voted to ban the city from the use of facial recognition technology, making the Massachusetts capital the ninth city in the country and the second largest to do so. 

"This is a historic day for Boston where the budget conversation is really focused on shifting resources away from police and towards community," civil liberties advocacy group Muslim Justice League tweeted. "And the conversation will not end here! We want community control over budgeting."

The council cited the technology's inaccuracy in correctly identifying people of color as a main reason for rejecting its use by the city.

"Boston should not use racially discriminatory technology that threatens the privacy and basic rights of our residents," council member Michelle Wu said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz, California city council voted unanimously to end the use of facial recognition technology—and the use of predictive policing—by the city. Civil liberties community organization Oakland Privacy welcomed the decision in a statement from advocacy director Tracy Rosenberg.

"All over the country, people are calling for transformational changes in how policing is done," said Rosenberg. "Walking away from intrusive and invasive surveillance technologies that have never been free of racial bias is one big step on that road."

A false facial recognition match in Michigan resulted in the arrest of innocent Michigan resident Robert Williams, who is Black, in January. The Michigan ACLU filed a complaint over the arrest on Wednesday just before the Boston vote.

"What happened to Robert Williams and his family should be a wake-up call for lawmakers," said Evan Greer, deputy director of technology with the advocacy group Fight for the Future. "Facial recognition is doing harm right now."

Massachusetts ACLU executive director Carol Rose in a statement Wednesday on the vote referred to Williams' case.

"This is a crucial victory for our privacy rights and for people like Robert Williams, who have been arrested for crimes they didn't commit because of a technology law enforcement shouldn't be using," said Rose.

Rose added that leaders around the country should follow the example from Boston and other municipalities that have banned facial recognition.

"Lawmakers nationwide should follow suit and immediately stop law enforcement use of this technology," said Rose. "This surveillance technology is dangerous when right, and dangerous when wrong."

The group's Kade Crockford told WBUR that the ramifications of allowing the technology to be used by the city could have dangerous effects down the line.

"Let's just ensure that we put the policy horse before the technology cart and lead with our values so we don't accidentally wake up someday in a dystopian surveillance state," said Crockford.

"Behind the scenes," Crockford added, "police departments and technology companies have created an architecture of oppression that is very difficult to dismantle."

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