Moratorium urged on use of facial recognition technology
BOSTON (AP) — Legislation that would hit pause on the use of facial recognition technology by police and other public agencies is gaining steam on Beacon Hill, as privacy and civil rights advocates say the technology is proliferating with little regulation and despite concerns about its reliability.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Democratic Sen. Cynthia Creem, said a moratorium is needed in part because the pace of technology is too fast for the law and the public to keep up and understand its implications.
“I personally don’t want Big Sister watching me unless there are some rules, unless I know that it’s effective, that it works, that it’s doing its job and that it’s being regulated,” Creem said Thursday. “None of that is happening right now.”
The bill includes a preamble that finds that the “government use of face recognition poses unique and significant civil rights and civil liberties threats to the residents” of Massachusetts and that “face recognition technology has a history of being far less accurate in identifying the faces of women, young people, and dark skinned people.”
It would make it illegal for any government official “to acquire, possess, access, or use any biometric surveillance system, or acquire, possess, access, or use information derived from a biometric surveillance system operated by another entity.”
Critics say facial recognition efforts by government agencies often happen in secret or go unnoticed. The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles has used the technology since 2006 to prevent driver’s license fraud. Some police agencies have used it as a tool for detectives.
The technology’s reliability has also been called into question.
A researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology uncovered much higher error rates in facial recognition technology created by brand-name tech firms in classifying the gender of darker-skinned women than for lighter-skinned men.
Supporters of the legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, say government regulations are needed to make sure the technology isn’t abused. They say that should also apply to other emerging technologies that try to identify a person from their voice or the way they walk.
A similar facial recognition ban is under consideration in Somerville.
Not everyone is ready to back the bill.
Attorney General Maura Healey, the state’s top law enforcement officer, said she hadn’t had a chance to review the legislation.
“To be honest, I want to take a look at it,” the Democrat said this week. “Obviously I’d expect a careful and thoughtful analysis.”
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker told reporters this month that he’s also not ready to support the legislation.
“My understanding is most of that is regulated at this point at the federal level,” Baker said. “Whether or not it should be regulated at the state level is something we’ve had conversations about, but they’re not to the point where I’d be ready to file legislation.”
Government agencies around the U.S. have used the technology for more than a decade to scan databases for suspects and prevent identity fraud.
The question of to what extent Massachusetts should embrace facial recognition technology flared up recently during an unrelated episode at the Statehouse.
In May, one of several protesters who had gathered at the building to call attention to the cost of higher education said he was told by an unnamed official that the Statehouse uses facial recognition to match the faces of people who walk through public entrances with law enforcement databases.
That prompted House Speaker Robert DeLeo to release a statement assuring visitors to the Statehouse that they’re not being subjected to facial recognition. The Statehouse has been ramping up security, recently adding additional security cameras throughout the building.
In a written statement, the Winthrop Democrat said: “There is no such technology used at the State House.”
Baker also said the Statehouse wasn’t using the technology.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, has a long way to go before reaching Baker’s desk. It has yet to come up for a public hearing or a vote in either chamber.
Massachusetts isn’t alone in taking a closer look at the technology.
San Francisco supervisors last month voted to ban the use of facial recognition software by police and other city departments, making the city the first in the U.S. to outlaw the technology.