Cambridge, Massachusetts Passes Ban On Facial Recognition Tech Use By Government Agencies

Congratulations to Cambridge, Massachusetts for joining the banwagon! Cambridge joins three other communities in the state which have decided facial recognition tech is too risky, too invasive of privacy, and all-around bad news for their residents. Brookline, Somerville, and Northampton have also banned the tech, potentially leading the way for a statewide ban.

A bill before the State House would also establish a statewide moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology and other forms of biometric surveillance, including the analysis of a person’s gait or voice, until the legislature regulates the software.

These communities join their West Coast counterparts in making the tech unavailable to government agencies. San Francisco and Oakland both banned the tech recently. This was followed by a statewide ban that made these efforts (mostly) redundant. But not completely. The state ban only applies to cameras operated by law enforcement officers. The city bans block all city government agencies from deploying the tech.

There really isn’t any good reason for any city or state to, at the very minimum, not pass a moratorium on facial recognition use. The tech is unproven. Specs vary widely between vendors, but most of the major offerings aren’t exactly burning up the charts in terms of false positives. That’s still a huge problem. But it’s only one of the problems.

A large percentage of false positives also means the programs are prone to false negatives, which runs contrary to law enforcement assertions the tech will aid and abet in crime-solving. You need to be able to accurately identify people to do that and high miss rates don’t exactly point to increased law enforcement efficiency.

Beyond that, the tech tends to show bias, some of which can be attributed to the people building the programs. The quality of the training inputs also matters, but the race to grab market share means speed is prized over accuracy. At this point, facial recognition tech is mostly known for getting things wrong and giving white males yet another reason to be grateful they’re white and male.

Unfortunately, these efforts will probably be temporary. There’s no way law enforcement agencies will go without this tech for long. And these agencies wield a great deal of power when it comes to crafting legislation, especially if they’re represented by a union.

As heartening as it is to see these efforts come to fruition, the widespread deployment of facial recognition tech feels almost inevitable. Maybe it isn’t. But state efforts won’t do much to halt the ever-expanding plans of the federal government, which is very much interested to subjecting as many Americans as possible to biometric collections, all in the name of national security. But a groundswell of state efforts could halt this advance or, at the very least, slow the surveillance rush back to a creep.

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