Boston Moves to Ban Facial Recognition Technology

Boston City Council hosted a hearing this week to discuss a proposed ordinance that would ban the use of facial recognition technology. Councilors Michelle Wu (At-Large) and Ricardo Arroyo (District 5) introduced their proposal for banning facial recognition technology over concerns about its inherent racial biases and the dangers of allowing unregulated use of such technology by government officials.

Boston City Council discussed a proposed ordinance on banning facial recognition in a hearing on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Alyssa Nations.

Advocates raised their concerns during the hearing about the usage of facial recognition technology among law enforcement, citing its inaccuracy and the repercussions of being falsely identified by this technology. A study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) showed 27 of 188 professional New England athletes were misidentified by facial recognition technology. The technology has been proven to misclassify people of color at a higher rate than white people.

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross stated that the Boston Police Department does not currently utilize facial recognition technology and expressed that the Department is not interested in employing faulty technology. However, Commissioner Gross did admit that the benefits of facial recognition technology, if improved to be more accurate, could provide better public safety for all.

He cited that the potential future employment of facial recognition technology would require proper oversight guidelines and community input. According to him, the benefits of this technology could be used in a variety of emergency situations such as finding missing persons and identifying criminal suspects.

As nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis continue to demand sweeping police reform, concerns regarding the usage of technology that could further racial profiling among law enforcement officials have increased.

In a letter submitted to Congress by IBM’s CEO Arvind Krishna on Monday, June 8th, the company announced that they would no longer be offering their general purpose facial recognition and analysis programs.

“IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” stated the letter.

According to the ACLUM, the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) and Massachusetts State Police have utilized facial surveillance technology without any oversight for years, prompting a 2019 lawsuit. The lawsuit cited that MassDOT allowed local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies access to their database of Massachusetts license holders for facial surveillance purpose without their knowledge or consent.

Surveillance technology has become more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic as companies such as Google released data that tracked how well populations were socially distancing and which communities were quarantining, prompting experts to express their concerns over the threat to citizens’ privacy rights that this type of technology poses.

“The Department rejects any notion, in the ordinance, that we are or will ever use facial recognition technology in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” assured Commissioner Gross during the hearing.

However, some companies have aimed at using facial recognition technology to capitalize on the current pandemic with ‘contactless’ payment that allows customers to pay for items by using their faces. This type of technology is not uncommon and exists in several aspects of the private sector.

HireVue, presented as an online interviewing and assessment tool, uses facial recognition technology to rank applicants by employability during the hiring process. The technology assesses interviewees on their speaking voice, choice of words, and facial expressions to determine their ratings.

Facial recognition technology has continuously been proven to be inaccurate, especially when identifying people of color, prompting over a hundred people to sign up to offer their public testimony in support of banning facial recognition technology in Boston. The full hearing can be viewed below.