Boston on Wednesday joined the still small, but growing, number of U.S. cities that have for the most part banned city officials’ use of facial-recognition technology.
The ordinance, sponsored by Councilor Michelle Wu and Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, passed by a unanimous vote according to Councilor Wu. The new measure prohibits both the city of Boston and any official in the city of Boston from using “face surveillance” and “information derived from a face surveillance system.”
There are, importantly, a few key exceptions. One such exception, allowing city employees to still use technology like Face ID to unlock their personal smartphones, is uncontroversial. Another, allowing law enforcement to “[use] evidence relating to the investigation of a specific crime that may have been generated from a face surveillance system, so long as such evidence was not generated by or at the request of Boston or any Boston official” could perhaps cause controversy down the road.
It is not impossible to imagine, as facial-recognition technology becomes cheaper and more widely accessible, citizen groups (such as those today who willingly turn their Amazon Ring videos over to police every time they see a “suspicious person”) running their own facial-recognition scans and forwarding that information to police on their own accord. As currently written — as long as there was no official agreement between law enforcement and these groups, and a specific crime was being investigated — it appears police would be able to act on this problematic information.
Still, the measure broadly restricts what officials can and can’t do with the powerful, but extremely flawed, technology. The city can neither run its own system nor contract out with a third party to do so in its stead. What’s more, any data gathered in violation of the ordinance “shall be considered unlawfully obtained and shall be deleted upon discovery[.]”
Notably, this vote comes on the same day as a complaint filed by the ACLU following the wrongful arrest of Robert Williams, a Black resident of Detroit, based on faulty facial-recognition tech. Williams and the unnamed thief police were after, are both Black men. The facial-recognition software used by Detroit police couldn’t tell them apart and incorrectly pegged Williams as the criminal.
A 2019 federal study confirmed that facial-recognition tech misidentifies Black people, the young, women, and the elderly at rates higher than that of white men.
“I never thought I’d have to explain to my daughters why daddy got arrested,” Williams writes in the Washington Post. “How does one explain to two little girls that a computer got it wrong, but the police listened to it anyway?”
Boston is the second-largest city, after San Francisco, to mostly ban the official use of facial-recognition tech. The measure goes into effect immediately and follows on corporate pledges of varying legitimacy to pause the sale of facial-recognition tech to law enforcement. However, as more and more cities follow San Francisco’s, Oakland’s, and Berkeley’s (among others) lead, the sincerity of those pledges becomes less and less significant.
The good news, it seems, is still possible.