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Boston councilors mull facial recognition ban: ‘The benefits of that technology . . . don’t outweigh the risk’

A camera was seen attached to a light post in Baltimore earlier this year.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Citing civil liberty and racial inequity concerns, Boston city councilors Wednesday discussed barring the city from using facial recognition technology.

Council President Kim Janey was among those to express concern that facial recognition technology continues to produce false matches, particularly when it comes to identifying people of color. Citing a study, she said Black and Asian faces had a much higher rate of false positives in such systems than white faces. Janey said it was clear that databases utilized in the technology “are not reliable for any serious use, let alone law enforcement, so we have to be really careful.”

“The benefits of that technology, right now, don’t outweigh the risk,” said Janey during the meeting, which was conducted virtually via Zoom.

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Other local communities, including Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville have instituted similar bans on facial recognition technology. Boston currently does not use such software, but Councilor Michelle Wu said a contract relating to the city’s surveillance system is due to expire next week, and that an upgrade could come with a patch that allowed for such tech.

“We know that this particular type of technology is not only a potential risk for civil liberties and for basic rights, but also has been documented to be racially-biased,” said Wu.

The proposed ban 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.

“A lot of people are already fearful of government, and I don’t think we need to add any more fear,”said Councilor Julia Mejia of facial recognition technology.

The council also discussed new guidelines for surveillance by city authorities, as well as information-sharing between school district officials and police. That initiative seeks 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.

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Additionally, the proposal also specifies parameters for what kind of information school district officials could share with law enforcement. Janey said city authorities should work to ensure that immigrants and people of color are not harmed by surveillance or reporting practices.

“I’m looking forward to a robust discussion,” said Janey.

Both measures were referred to the council’s committee on government operations for hearings. Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office said this week it is reviewing the two proposals.


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