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Boston City Council unanimously votes to ban use of face surveillance technology by city government

According to the ACLU Massachusetts, Boston would be the second largest city in the world to ban face surveillance technology.
According to the ACLU Massachusetts, Boston would be the second largest city in the world to ban face surveillance technology.Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg

The Boston City Council on Wednesday unanimously moved to ban city government use of face surveillance technology, which attempts to identify people by scanning their faces.

The measure makes 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 matter will now be sent to Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s desk.

Supporters of the ban have said the technology can generate false matches, and have expressed concerns that the technology is less accurate when it comes to identifying people of color.

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“Boston should not use racially discriminatory technology that threatens the privacy and basic rights of our residents,” said Councilor Michelle Wu in a statement. “This ordinance codifies our values that community trust is the foundation for public safety and public health.”

Boston does not currently use facial-recognition software, officials have said, meaning that the ordinance will not change existing practice. The measure does include exemptions. For instance, it would allow law enforcement to use evidence generated by a face surveillance system in the investigation of a specific crime.

“While face surveillance is a danger to all people, no matter the color of their skin, the technology is a particularly serious threat to Black and brown people,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo in a statement.

He continued, "Especially now, as communities are demanding real change from their elected officials, we need to proactively ensure that we do not invest in technology that studies show is ineffective and furthers systemic racism."

Other communities in the state, including Somerville, Brookline, Northampton, and Springfield, have banned face surveillance.

According to the ACLU of Massachusetts, Boston would become the second largest city in the world to make such a ban a reality.

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“To effectively address police abuses and systemic racism, we must address the tools that exacerbate those long-standing crises,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, in a statement. “Face surveillance supercharges the policing of Black and brown communities, and tramples on everyone’s rights to anonymity and privacy. The ACLU is grateful that Boston now joins five other Massachusetts municipalities that have banned government use of this technology.”

Previous Globe coverage was used in this report.


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