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City Council to consider ban on facial recognition, surveillance oversight, school information-sharing rules

Boston city councilors plan to take up a proposal that would establish protocols for overseeing surveillance in the city.
Boston city councilors plan to take up a proposal that would establish protocols for overseeing surveillance in the city.Spencer Platt

Boston city councilors are pushing to ban the use of facial-recognition technology by the city, as well as adopt rules to govern surveillance and information-sharing between school authorities and the police.

One measure, put forth by Councilors Michelle Wu and Ricardo Arroyo, would make it illegal for local authorities to obtain or use a face-surveillance system, to use information derived from such a system, or to enter into a third-party agreement for surveilling faces.

The measure would allow law enforcement to use evidence generated by a face-surveillance system in the investigation of a specific crime.

The city does not currently use facial-recognition software, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office said, meaning that the proposal would not change existing practice.

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But according to Arroyo, a forthcoming update of the city’s surveillance technology could include facial-recognition components. Arroyo and Wu said such technology can generate false matches. They are also concerned that the technology is less accurate when it comes to identifying people of color.

“It furthers racial inequity,” Arroyo said.

Other cities in the state, including Somerville and Springfield, have banned face surveillance, according to Wu and Arroyo. On the federal level, US Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, has expressed civil liberties and privacy concerns about a company’s facial-recognition app.

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, supported a ban, saying the council should act quickly “to keep everyone safe and free.”

“Strong privacy protections and surveillance oversight are vital to engendering public trust, which is essential to an effective fight against this [coronavirus] pandemic," Crockford said in a statement. “But we also need to make sure that, when we’ve made it past this crisis, our communities are not transformed into places we don’t want to live in. Face surveillance poses unprecedented threats to our civil rights and civil liberties.”

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In a separate proposal, councilors seek to require the mayor to submit to the council for its review and approval a policy for each department that uses surveillance technology. Such a policy would detail the purposes of the technology, allowed and prohibited uses, who can access the data collected, and data-sharing protocols. Exemptions would include cameras installed in or on police vehicles.

The measure also details parameters for what kind of information school district officials could share with law enforcement: The schools could share student data in cases of serious violence and credible safety threats, or if a student possessed guns or drugs, excluding marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol. The measure would prohibit the sharing of certain information from student reports, including immigration status, ethnicity, neighborhood of residence, languages spoken, and suspected gang affiliation.

Wu said trust forms the foundation of public health and safety and that it’s important to codify when information can and cannot be shared.

“We need transparency and accountability when it comes to that,” she said.

Under the proposal, a community board would be formed to oversee the school district’s information-sharing policy.

In March, authorities outlined a proposal that was intended to clarify the protocols for handling student information and help Boston Public Schools officials respond to requests from the police.

At the time, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius was asked about the planned changes: “There’s going to be a bright line between what is and what is not shared," she said.

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On Tuesday, Arroyo said questions remain regarding the criteria for sharing information.

In an e-mail, Jessica Ridlen, a spokeswoman for Boston Public Schools, said the School Committee and Cassellius are “committed to ensuring the privacy of its students’ information and their safety and security in school.”

School district officials first presented a student privacy policy to the committee in mid-April, and the district plans to “finalize a second policy governing access to students in school, so that the two policies may be considered by the school committee together.”

"We believe these two policies will meet the intentions of the proposed ordinance and look forward to continuing to work with the City Council to address our shared goals,” Ridlen said.

It was revealed earlier this year that city agencies had shared information about students more than 100 times from 2014 to 2018 with a Boston-area intelligence-sharing network that includes an agent from the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Both the proposed facial-recognition ban and the surveillance and information-sharing policy are slated to be discussed at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. Walsh’s office is reviewing both proposals.





Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.