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Somerville City Council passes facial recognition ban

Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville says he supports the City Council’s measure banning the use of facial recognition technology in police investigations and municipal surveillance programs.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2017/Globe Staff

SOMERVILLE — The Somerville City Council voted Thursday to ban the use of facial recognition technology in police investigations and municipal surveillance programs, taking an aggressive stance against the practice amid a national debate over online privacy.

By a vote of 11 to 0, the council sent the measure to Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, who has said he supports it.

The ban would make Somerville one of the first communities in the nation to prohibit government use of facial recognition software. A similar measure recently passed in San Francisco. Also in California, Oakland and Berkeley are considering bans.

Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, the lead sponsor of the bill, said that many of his constituents are worried about the consequences of the technology whose capabilities are outpacing the public’s understanding of its power.


“A lot of people who live here work somewhere in the tech industry and have more familiarity with this technology than the general public might,” he said before the Thursday meeting. “They know how powerful this technology is. They see how unregulated it is.”

Facial recognition algorithms can aid law enforcement officials in investigations, enabling them to scan massive amounts of footage in attempt to find a person of interest, for instance.

The FBI has said it processed nearly 50,000 facial recognition searches in the most recent fiscal year. And the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles has used facial recognition to help law enforcement identify suspects.

Critics worry that without careful oversight, the technology could lead to a massive expansion of tracking and surveillance. And some worry that it could also exacerbate racial inequities; the Chinese government’s use of facial recognition software to track the Uighur ethnic minority has raised human rights concerns.

The American Civil Liberties Union has campaigned to increase transparency and public oversight around the employment of surveillance technologies by law enforcement across the country, and it backed Ewen-Campen’s proposal.


“We must ensure face surveillance technology doesn’t get out ahead of our basic rights,” Kade Crockford, who runs the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “We can’t afford to sit by idly while the technology further outpaces our civil liberties protections and harms privacy, racial and gender justice, and freedom of speech.”

The state Legislature is considering similar measures, including a proposal to enact a moratorium on face recognition and “other remote biometric surveillance systems.”

Some in law enforcement, however, are calling for policymakers to approach the issue with an open mind. Scott Hovsepian, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, a major law-enforcement union, said that such bans could impede police departments’ efforts to maintain public safety.

“I just don’t want to see it dismissed it outright, because the potential to be an incredibly useful tool is there,” Hovsepian said.

The debates surrounding facial recognition technology have been one-sided so far, with opponents getting most of the attention, according to Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank with ties to the tech industry.

“Right now, there’s more public understanding about the potential concerns around this technology than about the benefits,” he said.

Instead of a ban, Castro would like to see policies developed to address specific concerns.

Ewen-Campen said he wants to ensure that the adoption of facial recognition technology is “opt in.”


“When it comes to facial recognition – the functional equivalent of every citizen wearing a barcode on their chest – proponents of the technology will need to make a case strong enough that a future elected body will repeal the ban,” he said.