Cambridge moving forward with ban on police use of facial recognition software

Last night (July 30, 2019), the Mayor and City Council of Cambridge, MA voted unanimously to move forward for committee discussion a ban on law enforcement use of facial recognition software. Mayor McGovern proposed the measure, seconded by Councillors Kelley and Siddiqui. Speakers in favor of it included Kade Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts, Ilan Levy and Chris Lucy. The next stages of the process will be consideration by the Public Safety Committee at a public hearing; a recommendation from the Committee to the Council; and finally, a hearing and a Council vote on adoption.

This proposal comes after the City of Somerville, MA, next to Cambridge, became only the second city in the nation to pass such a ban.

Cambridge’s draft text is less thoroughgoing than Somerville’s, and tries to leave some space for the Cambridge police still to use “inadvertent[ly] or unintentional[ly]” recei[ved]” images identified using facial recognition software, provided they did not “request or solicit the receipt, access of, or use of such information” (see the proposed text for full details here).

We’d rather see their use of such information barred entirely, because this language gives the Cambridge police a strong incentive to argue that any image they receive and use was in fact received inadvertently or unintentionally. We would also support a change that would prohibit city agencies from giving videos with faces (other than those intended for publication) to any entity that might do face recognition on them, except under a specific court order.

We can see in the aftermath of the city of Berkeley, CA’s adoption of a surveillance oversight ordinance that City employees can sometimes work hard to subvert even the clearly expressed intent of elected officials in this area. We should take care to ensure that it’s clearly understood within Cambridge that such efforts to regulate surveillance are not only law, but also need to be followed in practice.

Meanwhile, Cambridge’s surveillance oversight ordinance, passed in December 2018, will come into effect September 10, and that should trigger the Cambridge police referring each of their current deployments of surveillance technology to the City Council for a public hearing and approval of plans governing their use. Our Cambridge volunteers will be monitoring the process to make sure that the ball doesn’t get dropped.

Other Massachusetts cities and towns where activists are moving forward with campaigns for surveillance oversight or to ban facial recognition software include Boston, Brookline, Northampton and Worcester.

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