Second US city bans facial recognition technology

Second US city bans facial recognition technology
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Somerville, Mass., on Thursday became the second U.S. city to ban its local government from using facial recognition technology.

The move marks a win for privacy and civil rights advocates in a battle over the controversial technology that is just starting to heat up. 

Somerville follows San Francisco in banning local agencies and departments, including law enforcement, from using facial recognition software in public spaces.

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All 11 members of the Somerville City Council approved the ordinance on Thursday night, and the city's mayor signed it on Friday afternoon, making it official.

The ordinance bars the city of Somerville or any official from obtaining or accessing any face surveillance system or any information obtained from a face surveillance system.

Law enforcement will not be allowed to use data gathered by facial recognition technology as evidence in any proceeding, and city residents will be allowed to take action if officials violate the order.

"I have serious concerns about the use of facial recognition technology, and I commend the City Council for taking this important action to ban the acquisition or use of such technologies in our community," Mayor Joseph Curtatone said in a statement to The Hill.

Curtatone raised concerns that the "unregulated" technology has been shown to result in "false identification," meaning the software misidentifies people's faces. And he noted Somerville is a "diverse community," which raises concerns about the "frequency of the technology's bias against minorities."

Facial recognition technology, which scans people's faces for the purposes of identifying them, has faced enormous pushback over the past year from civil liberties and civil rights activists who say it has been shown to disproportionately misrecognize minority populations, particularly women of color, and has the potential to invade basic privacy rights. 

"[Facial recognition] is functionally like making everyone wear a digital barcode on their chest every time they leave the house," Ben Ewen-Campen, the Somerville Councilor who introduced the ordinance, told The Hill in a phone interview.

Cities across the U.S. are eyeing similar bans, including Oakland and Berkley, Calif. And more are likely to follow as state governments consider imposing some guardrails on facial recognition.

At the federal level, lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill have intensified their scrutiny of the sensitive technology, with some members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee considering a temporary moratorium until civil rights and liberties issues around the systems are resolved.

Ewen-Campen said as of right now, cities "have no choice" but to lead the way in regulating facial recognition technology because there is no oversight or regulation at the state or federal level.

"Something about facial recognition that in particular brings the issue [of surveillance] home for people," he said. "The idea of it being a tracking beacon that you can never turn off, it does resonate with people."