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3 Dec, 2020 11:32

Massachusetts set to become first US state to ban use of facial recognition by police

Massachusetts set to become first US state to ban use of facial recognition by police

Massachusetts is a governor’s signature away from forbidding its police from using facial recognition technology. There are no federal laws regulating the tech, which critics say is flawed and biased against communities of color.

On Tuesday, the state House and Senate voted in favor of a police reform bill, introduced in the wake of the killing of African-American man George Floyd, and subsequent ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests across the US. It now needs to be signed by Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, to become a state law. 

The reform almost entirely bans the use of biometrical surveillance by law enforcement and public agencies in Massachusetts. There’s only one exception: police will still be able to run facial recognition searches against the state’s driver’s license database. This will only be possible with a warrant, however. Law enforcement will also be obliged to publish transparency reports every year, with data on how many such warrants had been issued.

The bill also outlaws chokeholds and rubber bullets, while placing restrictions on tear gas and other crowd-control means in the arsenal of security agencies. However, qualified immunity for the police, which protects serving officers from legal action for misconduct, has been left in

The State Police Association of Massachusetts blasted the reform, saying that it “misses the mark.” According to the law enforcers, the initiative only “creates layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and costly commissions staffed by political appointees with no real-world experience in policing and the dangers officers face every day.”

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Local authorities are forced to act on the use of facial recognition technology on their own, given the lack of any US federal legislation regulating the controversial issue. It has already been banned by Portland, Boston, San Francisco, Oakland in Northern California and some other cities. Massachusetts may see the introduction of the first ever state-wide curbs.

The harshest restrictions so far have been introduced in Portland, Oregon, which has seen months of violent clashes sparked by police brutality. The city has barred not only all of its agencies from using facial recognition, but also made it illegal for such tech to be deployed in public spaces by private companies.

The facial recognition technology, which in many evokes daunting associations with Big Brother from George Orwell's dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ has long faced criticism for being flawed and for disproportionately misidentifying people from communities of color.

“No one should have to fear the government tracking and identifying their face wherever they go, or facing wrongful arrest because of biased, error-prone technology,” Kade Crockford, who heads the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told TechCrunch, welcoming the vote by the local legislators.

Major tech companies have been acknowledging both technical and legal issues regarding facial recognition. In June, IBM announced that it will stop developing the technology altogether, while Amazon vetoed the police from using its biometrical surveillance platform for a year, saying that it wanted to give Congress “enough time to implement appropriate rules.”

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State laws however, don't stop federal authorities from expanding their own use of facial recognition. The controversial Clearview AI company – which, from among other sources, relied on social media sites to compile its database of billions of images – has already signed contracts with several government agencies. The latest deal was struck with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August.

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