Nearly eight in 10 Massachusetts voters would support a moratorium on government use of face recognition surveillance, according to poll results released Tuesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts released the findings to launch its new “Press Pause on Face Surveillance” campaign, which supports a moratorium and aims to build public awareness about civil rights concerns associated with face recognition technology.
“Face and other biometric surveillance technologies give the government unprecedented power to track who we are, where we go, what we do and who we know,” Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said on a conference call with reporters. “Face surveillance threatens to create a world in which all of us are tracked and identified as we go about our daily lives, whether that means attending a political rally or meeting with our friends, congregating at houses of worship or seeking medical care.”
Rose called facial recognition a “dystopian technology” that can “deepen and reinforce racial biases.”
The poll, a telephone survey of 503 Massachusetts voters, was conducted from May 22 through May 29 by Beacon Research. It found that 91 percent of respondents think it’s important to regulate government use of face recognition technologies, and 76 percent disagree with the idea that government should be able to monitor and track people with technology.
Twenty percent somewhat supported and 59 percent strongly supported placing a moratorium on government use of face recognition, while 11 percent somewhat opposed and 8 percent strongly opposed.
The idea of a moratorium had bipartisan support, according to the poll, with backing from 84 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of independents and 50 percent of Republicans.
No federal law exists to protect people from abuses of face recognition, and no state law imposes guardrails on the technology here in Massachusetts, according to the ACLU. Somerville’s city council is considering an ordinance to prohibit government use of face surveillance.
Bills filed by Senator Cindy Creem and Representative David Rogers would impose a moratorium on government use of face recognition and other biometric surveillance within the state. Rogers’ bill is before the Judiciary Committee and Creem’s is before the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.
Under the legislation, the moratorium would last until the Legislature passed a law spelling out who would be permitted to use biometric surveillance and for what purposes, any prohibited uses, standards for using and managing information gathered, auditing requirements to ensure accuracy, due process and privacy protections, and mechanisms to ensure compliance.
Kade Crockford, director of Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said a moratorium would allow time for stakeholders from the technology, civil liberties and government realms to come together for “what is bound to be a lively debate over where we ought to draw lines.”
“It’s a relatively complex area for regulation, and that’s why we think the appropriate solution at the moment is to press pause to ensure that ... racially and gender-biased technology is not being used by law enforcement in the dark with no checks and balances in Massachusetts, and that we have the time, frankly, and the urgency that a moratorium would bring to this process,” Crockford said.
Joy Buolamwini, a computer scientist with the MIT Media Lab, said facial recognition can be used to profile individuals. Buolamwini said some of the technology, when tasked with identifying the gender of a face, posted error rates of no more than 1 percent for light-skinned men, but in the worst case those rates “soared to over 30 percent” for dark-skinned women.
“These disparate accuracy rates motivate concerns that those already marginalized in society will become further marginalized with the deployment of this kind of technology under the guise of machine neutrality,” she said.
Crockford said the Registry of Motor Vehicles has been using face recognition since 2006, allowing law enforcement to submit images to search against its database, and that the State Police allows law enforcement to perform facial recognition searches against mugshot photos.
Asked about face recognition technology earlier this month, Governor Charlie Baker said the issue is largely one for the federal government to handle. “Whether or not it should be regulated at the state level is something we’ve had conversations about, but it’s not to the point where we’d be ready to file legislation,” he told reporters.