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Should cities and towns ban their government’s use of facial recognition technology?

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Woodrow Hartzog

Newton resident; Professor of Law and Computer Science at Northeastern University

Woodrow HartzogLiz Linder

Facial recognition is the most dangerous surveillance technology ever invented. The world has never seen anything like it. It makes snooping and stalking easy and cheap. Left unabated, governments, companies, and individuals will use it to watch us everywhere we go.

Dystopian as these outcomes are, that’s not all. Facial recognition also has a disparate impact on people of color and other vulnerable populations. Marginalized populations will bear the brunt of facial recognition surveillance first and most intensely. In addition, these systems are also deeply biased due to, among other things, skewed and incomplete training data and under-representation of these populations in the design process.


Combine these risks with the fact that facial recognition has proven irresistible to all who want to control the behavior of others. Governments in some countries have begun using facial recognition for real-time surveillance, and several US cities have experimented with the idea. Industry is developing the technology for a wide array of uses in schools, shops, airports, places of worship, and potentially virtually every other space in public life.

Facial recognition is being pitched as the answer for truancy, shoplifting, and incivility. If you skip out on church, frown during a job interview, or doze off in school, those who use the technology will know and punish and shame you accordingly.

Most of the existing and proposed frameworks for regulating facial recognition, such as requirements to get peoples’ consent, are feeble. Our environments are engineered so that we will almost always click the “I agree” button when asked for your consent. It is almost impossible to be mindful of every request to be tracked and profiled.

Some have suggested governments be required to obtain warrants to use facial recognition, and while that might help, false confidence in court protection would further entrench surveillance infrastructure. What we need are clear red lines. Cities and towns can do their part by enacting all-out bans on their use of the technology. Short of that, they could prohibit their use of facial recognition in certain activities, in certain spaces, or by certain actors.


A ban won’t solve all surveillance problems, but you’ve got to start somewhere.


Scott Bushway

Retired Walpole Police deputy police chief; Adjunct professor of criminal justice at MassBay Community College, Purdue University, and Hillsborough Community College

Scott BushwayHandout

Facial recognition is a biometric technology used everyday to unlock your phone and to find photos in Google and Apple cloud storage. But that is only the beginning.

Facial recognition systems analyze visual data from social media and other sources. They are able to distinguish facial features and reduce each face to a mathematical equation by measuring “nodal points” such as the distance between your eyes, or the width of your nose. This technology sees patterns in visual data and compares it to data stored in facial recognition databases to determine identity.

The biggest criticism of facial recognition is the fear of it infringing on individual privacy. Some cities and towns believe the risk outweighs the benefit and have banned the use by law enforcement. I believe otherwise.

There is no expectation of privacy in public places and while you may not like being photographed in public, it is perfectly legal. Since the 9/11 attacks, people have been willing to accept a level of privacy infringement as a cost to ensuring their safety. We see this most visibly at airport screenings. Facial recognition takes this level of privacy infringement to a new level and as a result -- and in exchange -- provides a new and enhanced level of safety and security.


For example, facial recognition is a deterrent to crime. If people think they are being watched, they are less likely to commit crimes. Facial recognition is also a powerful investigative tool. It can be used to identify wanted persons in a crowd, assist with locating people who are lost or have been abducted, confirm someone’s identity, and reduce identity theft.

Facial recognition can also be used to prevent crime by refusing entry of known terrorists and other threats into populated events. Taylor Swift has used facial recognition to determine if any stalkers were in attendance at her Rose Bowl show last year by embedding cameras behind video footage shown to the crowd before the performance.

To be able to match a face in a crowd with that of a known terrorist is a benefit that people should embrace. Facial recognition is here to stay and it’s expanding.

This is no a scientific survey. Please vote only once.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact