The Boston City Council voted unanimously on June 24 to ban government use of face surveillance technologies. Face surveillance systems are systematically worse at recognizing women and people of color, partly because the training datasets they learn with contain a preponderance of white, middle-aged men. Nothing about our criminal justice system requires the adoption of a technology that biases arrests and charging decisions more against Black people.
But if the technology ever somehow overcomes that, and becomes one hundred percent accurate, it becomes immensely more terrifying. In many cities already across the world, the police track wherever you go in public, and the authorities can easily form a picture of your habits and activities, to keep in their pockets for whenever you’re accused of a crime – or for whenever you grow inconvenient to them in other ways. Now, thanks to years of work by the #BosCops and #PressPause coalitions, which we’ve been a part of from the start, Boston will not be one of those cities. This matters.
Now we turn to what’s next. Face surveillance is a unique kind of threat, but the police should not deploy any surveillance technology without public hearings, and without the knowledge and approval of local elected officials. Those officials should have the power to approve or deny the use of such technologies. The surveillance state needs a little more sand in its gears, to stop the continuous ratchet of more and more invasive technologies. Next month – probably – the City Council will consider a surveillance ordinance that would do all that. Similar ordinances are already on the books in Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Lawrence, Northampton, and (as of July 1) Easthampton too, and many other municipalities across the nation.
But the face surveillance ordinance itself still, like any ordinance, has loopholes and limitations. We’ve written to the Boston City Council to lay out some of those problems:
- So there won’t be a public network of City-owned cameras; what happens if there’s a private network, and the City simply requests that footage?
- The City has the authority to regulate whether and how private businesses deploy face surveillance in the City. To address this, the city-wide ban on face surveillance should be amended to include language on how sports stadiums like Fenway Park, the TD Garden and retail stores like Home Depot, Macy’s, Best Buy and Kohl’s will be permitted to use face surveillance software, and require them to disclose use of it to the public.
- And we still don’t know whether MBTA uses facial recognition; City agencies, including the police, should need a warrant for their footage.
Here’s our testimony on these points. And if you’d like to help with our continuing municipal campaigns to rein in surveillance in Massachusetts, email us today!