The city council of Somerville, Massachusetts voted unanimously last week to become the first city on the East Coast to ban government face surveillance. It is encouraging to see cities across the country take this proactive step in anticipating the surveillance problems on the horizon and head them off in advance. This is far easier than trying to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle after it causes harm.
“In Somerville we take fairness, justice, and individual liberties seriously,” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone tweeted after signing the ordinance, which was introduced by Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen. “Facial recognition software automates civil rights abuses and extends (and somewhat corporatizes) a pervasive surveillance state.”
Face recognition technology can be used for identifying or verifying the identity of an individual using photos or video. Government can even conduct dragnet, real-time face surveillance of entire neighborhoods. Face recognition technology is also prone to error, implicating people for crimes they haven’t committed.
In addition to banning government face surveillance in its own city, the Somerville city council has also endorsed a pair of bills that would place a moratorium on face surveillance across Massachusetts.
Polling from the ACLU of Massachusetts has more than three-quarters—79 percent—of likely Massachusetts voters supporting a statewide moratorium.
Local governments lead the way in taking on the threat that face surveillance poses to our communities. San Francisco in May became the first city in the country to ban government face surveillance and also ensure a more informed and democratic process before the San Francisco Police Department and other city agencies may acquire other kinds of surveillance technologies.
Other lawmakers should take note. Governments should immediately stop use of face surveillance in our communities, given what researchers at MIT’s Media Lab and others have said about its high error rates—particularly for women and people of color. But even if manufacturers someday mitigate these risks, government use of face recognition technology will still threaten safety and privacy, amplify discrimination in our criminal justice system, and chill every resident’s free speech.
Massachusetts, tell your lawmakers: it’s time to hit the pause button on face surveillance.