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Massachusetts Could Become First State to Ban Facial Recognition

July 8, 2020, 7:05 PM

The Massachusetts Senate is set to approve legislation Thursday that would make the state the first in the nation to ban law enforcement use of facial recognition technology.

An omnibus police reform bill (S. 2800) would place a moratorium on the technology until at least Dec. 31, 2021, when a task force would make recommendations about regulating it or permanently banning it.

The Democratic-controlled Senate’s vote will come on the heels of similar moratoriums and bans in Boston and other Massachusetts communities and in San Francisco, which in May 2019 became the first major city to take such an action. Similar efforts, however, have failed in California and Washington state.

Police in Massachusetts don’t use the technology, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Even so, a moratorium is needed so the state will be prepared, with regulations or a ban, before the technology makes an appearance, according to the group.

Facial recognition software is “dangerous when it works, and when it doesn’t,” said Kade Crockford, a program director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. Studies show the software is imperfect when analyzing and searching images of people with darker skin, women and young people, Crockford said.

“Even if face surveillance technology improves, it will still pose an unprecedented threat to Black and brown people in this country, who have long been and continue to be disproportionately targeted by police abuse, harassment, and surveillance,” Crockford said.

Leaders in the Democratic-controlled Massachusetts House and Gov. Charlie Baker (R) support provisions in the bill, though haven’t said if they back a facial recognition moratorium.

Baker will “carefully review” any bills that reach his desk, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Analyzes Images

The surveillance technology analyzes images of people’s faces and compares them with those in law enforcement or other databases, looking for a match.

Detroit and Chicago police may be using the technology, and Orlando, Fla., has been operating a pilot program, according to the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology. Information on technology use is hard to come by because communities don’t always disclose it, according to the center.

Few other states regulate facial recognition. Washington state enacted a law in March that requires a warrant for police use of facial recognition tools. Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act prohibits businesses from gathering and disseminating images of people without their consent. The prohibition does not extend to government entities, including state and local police.

In Ohio, where facial recognition has been used for years, a task force appointed by Attorney General Dave Yost (R) recommended in January that the state draft regulations to protect citizen rights and privacy. Yost announced in February that the state would spend $21.4 million to upgrade its facial recognition database next year.

-- With assistance from Daniel R. Stoller

To contact the reporter on this story: Adrianne Appel in Boston at aappel@bloomberglaw.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com; Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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