Boston Bans Use of Facial Recognition Technology by City Departments

Boston is the largest city on the East Coast to ban facial recognition technology and second largest in the country, following San Francisco.

BOSTON — City councilors here voted yesterday to pass an ordinance prohibiting the use of facial recognition technology by Boston police and other city departments.

The ban comes amid evidence that the technology is inaccurate when it comes to identifying people of color. According to a study by MIT, facial analysis programs had an error rate of up to 35% for darker skinned women.

“It has an obvious racial bias and that’s dangerous,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo ahead of the hearing. “But it also has sort of a chilling effect on civil liberties. And so, in a time where we’re seeing so much direct action in the form of marches and protests for rights, any kind of surveillance technology that could be used to essentially chill free speech or … more or less monitor activism or activists is dangerous.”

The ban will make it illegal for city officials to use facial recognition programs through third-party companies, but allow Boston police to use evidence obtained through such technology by another agency, such as the FBI, for investigations into a “specific crime,” as long as the evidence was not generated or requested by any city officials.

Mayor Marty Walsh has 15 days from Friday to sign or veto the ordinance. The ban will become law if he does not sign the ordinance within that time period.

Boston is the second largest city in the U.S. to ban facial recognition technology following San Francisco which took the action last May. Many campuses around the country are also banning the technology.

As SIA and NIST have noted, facial recognition has its benefits. It is even now being used to help address compliance when it comes to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

However, it is clear that the public will remain wary of the technology until it can prove to be more accurate and bias-free.

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Steven A. Karantzoulidis is the Web Editor for Security Sales & Integration. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a degree in Communication and has a background in Film, A/V and Social Media.

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