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City Council Discusses Banning Facial Recognition; Regulating Surveillance Information Sharing

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to accelerate the advancement of surveillance technology for public safety purposes to monitor the spread of the virus. The Boston City Council recently discussed proactive measures to regulate the use of some surveillance technology while eliminating inaccurate facial recognition.

City Council proposes banning facial recognition technology in Boston and governing surveillance technology/information-sharing. Photo by Alyssa Nations.

Councilors Michelle Wu (At-Large) and Ricardo Arroyo (District 5) proposed the banning of facial recognition technology in Boston, citing the dangers of its inaccuracy and racial bias.

Communities across Massachusetts, including Somerville, Springfield, Brookline, and Cambridge, have passed local legislation banning the use of facial recognition technology. If the proposal is approved, Boston would become one of the largest cities on the East Coast to ban the use of facial surveillance.

While data such as Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports seem harmless enough, many experts are concerned that surveillance technology such as this poses a threat to residents’ privacy rights. Several companies have announced their own technology for tracking who is socially distancing and which city residents are quarantining appropriately through the use of surveillance technology. However, officials have scrutinized that this technology will probably remain well after the public health crisis has ended.

Facial recognition technology has been proven to misidentify people of color more often than white people. In a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM), the official headshots of 188 professional New England athletes were compared to a database of public arrest photos where 27 of those athletes were misidentified with one of the arrest photos in the database.

“I think we need to stand here to say, this is not about the scientific argument. This is about civil rights. This is about the effectiveness and the impact on our communities, not just of color, but all communities in general,” said Councilor Lydia Edwards (District 1).

Edwards argued that the Boston Police Department currently does not utilize facial recognition technology due to scientific evidence of its inaccuracy. However, she noted that, once the technology improves, there is still a moral obligation to protect citizens’ civil rights against such technology.

Councilor Michael Flaherty (At-Large) countered that there is a delicate balance between protecting civil rights and providing efficient public safety with surveillance technology. He pointed to the importance of the surveillance cameras used to track down a young woman who was held captive in Charlestown last year.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a society more technologically-dependent than ever before as schools transition to online classrooms and many city services are conducted online. In response, Councilor Arroyo and City Council President Kim Janey (District 7) proposed an ordinance for oversight of surveillance technology and information sharing between Boston Public Schools (BPS) administrators and the Boston Police Department (BPD).

The use of surveillance technology in the sector of public safety plays an important—but potentially harmful—role in our society. If the proposal were to be adopted, the Mayor’s office would be required to submit a request for approval to the City Council before acquiring and using surveillance technology. It would also require that a policy outlining each department’s usage of that technology be submitted for complete transparency and accountability to the public.

The proposal also outlines what can and cannot be shared to police officials from school authorities in order to better protect student rights. School administrators would be allowed to share data concerning extreme violence, credible safety threats, and the possession of drugs (outside of marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol) to the BPD. However, sensitive data such as immigration status and ethnicity would not be shared.

A community board would be formed in order to govern and enforce the information-sharing policy in Boston Public Schools.

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