If there was any question about the gravity of problems with police use of face surveillance technology, 2020 wasted no time in proving them dangerously real. Thankfully, from Oregon to Massachusetts, local lawmakers responded by banning their local governments' use.
On January 9, after first calling and threatening to arrest him at work, Detroit police officers traveled to nearby Farmington Hills to arrest Robert Williams in front of his wife, children, and neighbors—for a crime he did not commit. He was erroneously connected by face recognition technology that matched an image of Mr. Williams with video from a December 2018 shoplifting incident. Later this year, Detroit police erroneously arrested a second man because of another misidentification by face recognition technology.
For Robert Williams, his family, and millions of Black and brown people throughout the country, the research left the realm of the theoretical and became all too real. Experts at MIT Media Lab, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Georgetown's Center on Privacy and Technology have shown that face recognition technology is riddled with error, especially for people of color. It is one more of a long line of police tools and practices that exacerbate historical bias in the criminal system.
2020 will undoubtedly come to be known as the year of the pandemic. It will also be remembered for unprecedented Black-led protest against police violence and concerns that surveillance of political activity will chill our First Amendment rights. Four cities joined the still-growing list of communities that have stood up for their residents' rights by banning local government use of face recognition. Just days after Mr. Williams' arrest, Cambridge, MA—an East Coast research and technology hub–became the largest East Coast City to ban government use of face recognition technology. It turned out to be a distinction they wouldn't retain long.
In February and March, Chicago and New York City residents and organizers called on local lawmakers to pass their own bans. However, few could have predicted that a month later, organizing, civic engagement, and life as we knew it would change dramatically. As states and municipalities began implementing stay in place orders to suppress an escalating global pandemic, City Councils and other lawmaking bodies adapted to social distancing and remote meetings.
As those of us privileged enough to work from home adjusted to Zoom meetings, protests in the name of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd spread throughout the country.
Calls to end police use of face recognition technology were joined by calls for greater transparency and accountability. Those calls have not yet been answered with a local ban on face recognition in New York City.
As New Yorkers continue to push for a ban, one enacted bill will shine the light on NYPD use of all manner of surveillance technology. That light of transparency will inform lawmakers and the public of the breadth and dangers of NYPD's use of face recognition and other privacy-invasive technology. After three years of resistance from the police department and the mayor, New York's City Council passed the POST Act with a veto-proof majority. While lacking the community control measures in stronger surveillance equipment ordinances, the POST Act requires the NYPD to publish surveillance impact and use policies for each of its surveillance technologies. This will end decades of the department's refusal to disclose information and policies about its surveillance arsenal.
Building on the momentum of change driven by political unrest and protest–and through the tireless work of local organizers including the ACLU-Massachusetts–just days after New York's City Council passed the POST Act, Boston's City Council took strong action. It voted unanimously to join neighboring Cambridge in protecting their respective residents from police use of face recognition. In the preceding weeks, EFF advocated for, and council members accepted, improvements to the ordinance. One closed a loophole that might have allowed police to ask third parties to collect face recognition evidence for them. Another change provides attorney fees to a person who brings a successful suit against the City for violating the ban.
Not to be outdone by their peers in California and Massachusetts, 2020 was also the year municipal lawmakers in Oregon and Maine banned their own agencies from using the technology. In Portland, Maine, the City Council voted unanimously to ban the technology in August. Then in November, the City's voters passed the first ballot measure prohibiting government use of face recognition.
Across the country, the Portland, Oregon, City Council voted unanimously in September to pass their government ban (as well as a ban on private use of face recognition in places of public accommodation). In the days leading up to the vote, a coalition organized by PDX Privacy, an Electronic Frontier Alliance member, presented local lawmakers with a petition signed by over 150 local business owners, technologists, workers, and residents for an end to government use of face surveillance.
Complimenting the work of local lawmakers, federal lawmakers are stepping forward. Senators Jeff Merkley and Jeff Markey), and Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Pramila Jayapal, Rashida Tlaib, and Yvette Clarke introduced the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act of 2020 (S.4084/H.R.7356). If passed, it would ban federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Customs and Border Patrol from using face recognition to track and identify (and misidentify) millions of U.S. residents and travelers. The act would also withhold certain federal funding from local and state governments that use face recognition.
While some high-profile vendors this year committed to pressing pause on the sale of face recognition technology to law enforcement, 2020 was also a year where the public became much more familiar with how predatory the industry can be. Thus, through our About Face campaign and work of local allies, EFF will continue to support the movement to ban all government use of face recognition technology.
With a new class of recently elected lawmakers poised to take office in the coming weeks, now is the time to reach out to your local city council, board of supervisors, and state and federal representatives. Tell them to stand with you in ending government use of face recognition, a dangerous technology with a proven ability to chill essential freedoms and amplify systemic bias.
This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2020.