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RI COURTS

DLT director said facial recognition won’t be used for unemployment claims

The ACLU sued the Department of Labor and Training for ‘hiding information’ after it refused to fulfill a public records request that asked if they were considering the software to process claims.

Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training building in Cranston, R.I.RI DLT

PROVIDENCE — The state’s Department of Labor and Training will not use facial recognition technology to process unemployment claims, its director told the Globe Tuesday.

The ACLU of Rhode Island had sued the department for “hiding information” after the state denied a public records request asking if the use of facial recognition software was being considered.

The public records request, submitted in August by ACLU of Rhode Island policy associate Hannah Stern, was in response to several national news reports that indicated a number of states had begun using the technology to process unemployment claims. Her request sought any information the DLT had examined regarding “operational effectiveness or accuracy rate” of any facial recognition products being considered since the accuracy of the technology, particularly for people of color, has been a matter of debate.

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Stern also requested records related to the agency’s “actual or considered usage of facial recognition and identify verification software … in the course of processing unemployment claims.”

According to the ACLU, the state refused to fulfill the request, and responded that all the requested documents were “confidential by law” and would not be released.

But DLT director Matthew Weldon told the Globe through a statement sent by his office that there are no plans to start using facial recognition technology.

“The Department does not, and has no plans to, use facial recognition technology for any of our programs. We will be in contact with the ACLU’s attorneys on this matter today to clear this issue up and provide the information they have requested,” said Weldon. “We apologize for any confusion we caused and look forward to a quick resolution in the courts.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit still demands that the state release the agency’s records.

Privacy concerns regarding facial recognition software have been up for debate among governments and private businesses. Earlier this month, Facebook said it would shut down its face-recognition system and delete the faceprints of more than 1 billion people because of misuse concerns by police and governments.

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“Facial recognition technology in any context has huge implications for privacy and civil liberties. The DLT’s refusal to release documents about its potential use is not only contrary to tenets of governmental transparency, but it also means that the agency believes it can implement intrusive surveillance tools without any public oversight,” said Stern. “At a bare minimum, residents should have the right to know when invasive technologies are being considered or used and any policies guiding their usage.”

She added, “Concealing this information unacceptably undermines the public’s right to know.”

The suit was filed by ACLU cooperating attorneys C. Alexander Chiulli and Hilary White, who noted the three statues cited by DLT in its response to the records request were each designed to protect the privacy of unemployment compensation claimants, but that in their records request “does not seek information related to any individual employee, participant, recipient, applicant, or citizen involved” with DLT.

White and Chiulli said “there is no legal basis” for denying the records and the suit seeks the imposition of civil fines and a court order requiring the state to release the documents “forthwith” at no cost.

“The DLT’s interest in protecting the privacy of claimants is commendable. However, its misuse of statutes in order to conceal important information from the public is untenable. This lawsuit seeks to redress the agency’s clear violation of the open records law,” said Chiulli.

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Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.